[Paleopsych] Ben Franklin 300 Package
checker at panix.com
Tue Jan 17 16:10:26 UTC 2006
Ben Franklin 300 Package
[Today is the tricentennial of the birth of the most polymathic of the
Foundng Fathers. First, an appreciation of his work on electricity, then
news items for today and reflections, then reviews of books about him over
the past few years. Mr. Jefferson is, of course, the visionary I feel
closest to, and Washington the man most instrumental to our independence,
but Franklin is surely the most complex.]
Benjamin Franklin and Lightning Rods
Physics Today January 2006
American Institute of Physics
Franklin's work on electricity and lightning earned him worldwide
fame and respect--ideal assets for brokering aid from France during
the American Revolution.
E. Philip Krider
sketch of the "sentry-box" experiment
On 10 May 1752, as a thunderstorm passed over the village of
Marly-la-Ville, a retired French dragoon, acting on instructions
from naturalist Thomas-François Dalibard, drew sparks from a tall
iron rod that had been carefully insulated from ground (see figure
1). The sparks showed that thunderclouds are electrified and that
lightning is an electrical discharge. In the mid-18th century, such
an observation was sensational and was soon verified by Delor,
Dalibard's collaborator in Paris. Within weeks of hearing the news,
many others throughout Europe had successfully repeated the
When Dalibard and Delor reported their results to the Académie des
Sciences in Paris three days later, they acknowledged that they had
merely followed a path that Benjamin Franklin had traced for them.
In June 1752, shortly after the experiment at Marly-la-Ville but
before he knew about it, Franklin drew sparks himself from a key
attached to the conducting string of his famous electrical kite
that was insulated from ground by a silk ribbon.
The French results were important because they called attention to
Franklin's small pamphlet, Experiments and Observations on
Electricity, Made at Philadelphia in America,^3 that helped to
stimulate other work in electricity and contributed to the
beginning of modern physics.^4 The observations also validated the
key assumptions that lay behind Franklin's supposition that tall,
grounded rods can protect buildings from lightning damage.
A Philadelphia story
Franklin performed his initial experiments on electricity in
collaboration with friends and neighbors, including Thomas
Hopkinson, a lawyer and judge; Ebenezer Kinnersley, a clergyman and
teacher; and Philip Syng Jr, a master silversmith. Franklin
described the experiments and their results in five formal letters
to Peter Collinson, a fellow of the Royal Society of London, during
the years from 1747 to 1750. Collinson in turn communicated those
letters to the Society and published them in April 1751.
In his first letter,^5 Franklin described "the wonderful Effect of
Points, both in drawing off and throwing off the Electrical Fire."
He showed that points work quickly at "a considerable Distance,"
that sharp points work better than blunt ones, that metal points
work better than dry wood, and that the pointed object should be
touched--that is, grounded--to obtain the maximum draw effect.
Next, Franklin introduced the idea that rubbing glass with wool or
silk does not actually create electricity; rather, at the moment of
friction, the glass simply takes "the Electrical Fire" out of the
rubbing material. Whatever amount is added to the glass, an equal
amount is lost by the wool or silk. The terms plus and minus were
used to describe those electrical states; the glass was assumed to
be electrified positively and the rubbing material negatively. The
idea that electricity is a single fluid that is never created or
destroyed, but simply transferred from one place to another, was
profound, and it greatly simplified the interpretation of many
In his second letter,^5 Franklin described the behavior of a Leiden
jar capacitor by combining the concept of equal positive and
negative states with an assumption that glass is a perfect
insulator. "So wonderfully are these two States of Electricity, the
plus and minus combined and ballanced in this miraculous Bottle!"
He also made an analogy between electricity and lightning when he
described a discharge through the gold trim on the cover of a book
that produced "a vivid Flame, like the sharpest Lightning."
In his third letter,^5 Franklin began to use terms such as
"charging" and "discharging" when describing how a Leiden jar
works, and he noted the importance of grounding when charging and
discharging the jar. He also showed that the electricity in such a
device resides entirely in the glass and not on the conductors that
are inside and outside the jar. Franklin described how several
capacitors could be charged in series "with the same total Labour"
as charging one, and he constructed an "Electrical Battery"--a
capacitor bank in today's parlance--using panes of window glass
sandwiched between thin lead plates, and then discharged them
together so that they provided the "Force of all the Plates of
Glass at once thro' the Body of any Animal forming the Circle with
them." Later, Franklin used discharges from large batteries to
simulate the effects of lightning in a variety of materials.
In the fourth letter,^5 he applied his knowledge of electricity to
lightning by introducing the concept of the sparking or striking
distance: If two electrified gun barrels "will strike at two Inches
Distance, and make a loud Snap; to what great a Distance may 10 000
Acres of Electrified Cloud strike and give its Fire, and how loud
must be that Crack!" Based on his previous experiments with sharp
points, Franklin then postulated that when an electrified cloud
passes over a region, it might draw electricity from, or discharge
electricity to, high hills and trees, lofty towers, spires, masts
of ships, and chimneys. That supposition then led to some practical
advice against taking shelter under a single, isolated tree during
a thunderstorm; crouching in an open field is less dangerous.
Franklin also noted that out in the open during a thunderstorm,
clothing tends to become wet, thereby providing a conducting path
outside the body. His laboratory analogy was that "a wet Rat can
not be kill'd by the exploding electrical Bottle, when a dry Rat
In the fifth letter,^5 Franklin described how discharges between
smooth or blunt conductors occur with a "Stroke and Crack," whereas
sharp points discharge silently and produce large effects at
greater distances. He then introduced what he viewed to be a "Law
of Electricity, That Points as they are more or less acute, both
draw on and throw off the electrical fluid with more or less Power,
and at greater or less Distances, and in larger or smaller
Quantities in the same Time." Given his interest in lightning and
the effects of metallic points, it was a short step to the
I say, if these Things are so, may not the Knowledge of this
Power of Points be of Use to Mankind; in preserving Houses,
Churches, Ships, etc. from the Stroke of Lightning; by Directing
us to fix on the highest Parts of those Edifices upright Rods of
Iron, made sharp as a Needle and gilt to prevent Rusting, and
from the Foot of those Rods a Wire down the outside of the
Building into the Ground; or down round one of the Shrouds of a
Ship and down her Side, till it reaches the Water? Would not
these pointed Rods probably draw the Electrical Fire silently
out of a Cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby
secure us from that most sudden and terrible Mischief!
Clearly, Franklin supposed that silent discharges from one or more
sharp points might reduce or eliminate the electricity in the
clouds above and thereby reduce or eliminate the chances of the
structure being struck by lightning. From his earlier observations,
he knew that point discharges work best when the conductor is
grounded and that lightning tends to strike tall objects.
Therefore, even if the point discharges did not neutralize the
cloud, a tall conductor would provide a preferred place for the
lightning to strike, and the grounded conductor would provide a
safe path for the lightning current to flow into the ground.
Franklin also stated in his fifth letter,^5
To determine the Question, whether the Clouds that contain
Lightning are electrified or not, I would propose an Experiment
to be try'd where it may be done conveniently.
On the Top of some high Tower or Steeple, place a Kind of Sentry
Box [see Figure 1] big enough to contain a Man and an electrical
Stand. From the Middle of the Stand let an Iron Rod rise, and
pass bending out of the Door, and then upright 20 or 30 feet,
pointed very sharp at the End. If the Electrical Stand be kept
clean and dry, a Man standing on it when such Clouds are passing
low, might be electrified, and afford Sparks, the Rod drawing
Fire to him from the Cloud.
Franklin was not the first person to compare sparks with lightning
or to hypothesize that lightning might be an electrical discharge.
In fact, almost every experimenter who had previously described
electric sparks had, at one time or another, mentioned an analogy
to lightning. Franklin's seminal contributions were his suggestions
that tall, insulated rods could be used to determine if
thunderclouds are, in fact, electrified and that tall, grounded
rods would protect against lightning damage.
The French connection
Shortly after Collinson published the first edition of Experiments
and Observations, he sent a copy to the famous French naturalist,
the Comte de Buffon, who asked Dalibard to translate it from
English into French. While he did that, Dalibard asked Delor to
help him repeat many of the Philadelphia experiments. In March
1752, Buffon arranged for the pair to show the experiments to King
Louis XV. The king's delight inspired Dalibard to try the
sentry-box experiment at Marly-la-Ville.
At the time of the sentry-box experiment, Abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet
was the leading "electrician" in France and was known throughout
Europe for his skill in making apparatus and in performing
demonstrations. Unfortunately, because of personal rivalries,
Buffon and Dalibard completely ignored Nollet's work in a short
history that preceded their translation of Franklin's book. After
Dalibard read an account of the sentry-box experiment to the
Académie des Sciences on 13 May 1752, Nollet suppressed publication
of the results.^6 News reached the Paris newspapers, however, and
from there spread very rapidly. After Louis XV saw the experiment,
he sent a personal message of congratulations to Franklin,
Collinson, and the Royal Society of London for communicating "the
useful Discoveries in Electricity, and Application of Pointed Rods
to prevent the terrible Effects of Thunderstorms."^7
Nollet was both surprised and chagrined by the experiment at
Marly-la-Ville. He acknowledged that insulated rods or
"electroscopes" did verify that thunderclouds are electrified, but
for the rest of his life he steadfastly opposed the use of grounded
rods as "preservatives." In 1753, he published a series of letters
attacking Franklin's Experiments and Observations and suggested
other methods of lightning protection. On 6 August 1753, the
Swedish scientist Georg Wilhelm Richmann was electrocuted in St.
Petersburg while trying to quantify the response of an insulated
rod to a nearby storm. The incident, reported worldwide,
underscored the dangers inherent in experimenting with insulated
rods and in using protective rods with faulty ground connections.
Nollet used Richmann's death to heighten the public's fears and to
generate opposition to both types of rods.^8
In London, members of the Royal Society were amused when Franklin's
letter about lightning conductors was read to the Society, and they
did not publish it in their Philosophical Transactions. In 1753,
however, they awarded Franklin their highest scientific honor, the
Copley Gold Medal. In his 1767 history of electricity, Joseph
Priestley described the kite experiment as drawing "lightning from
the heavens," and said it was "the greatest, perhaps, in the whole
compass of philosophy since the time of Sir Isaac Newton."^9
Experiments in colonial America
Modeled after a 1762 painting
After Franklin learned about the success of the sentry-box
experiment in France, he installed a tall, insulated rod on the
roof of his house to study the characteristics of thunderstorm
electricity. The conductor ran down a stairwell to ground but had a
gap in the middle, as illustrated on the left side of figure 2. A
small ball suspended between chimes mounted on each end of the gap
would ring the chimes whenever an electrified cloud passed
overhead. Franklin used this apparatus to compare the properties of
atmospheric electricity with the electricity generated by friction
and to measure the polarity of thunderclouds.
He found that both types of electricity were the same and "that the
Clouds of a Thunder Gust are most commonly in a negative State of
Electricity, but sometimes in a positive State,"^10 a result that
was regarded as definitive for the next 170 years. At that time,
Franklin thought that all discharges went from positive to
negative, so he concluded "that for the most part in Thunder
Strokes, 'tis the Earth that strikes into the Clouds, and not the
Clouds that strike into the Earth." Judging by his later
correspondence, Franklin was fascinated by this discovery, and he
postulated that the effects of lightning would be very nearly the
same regardless of the direction of the current flow.
First protection system
In the 1753 issue of Poor Richard's Almanack, Franklin published a
method for protecting houses from lightning damage:
It has pleased God in his Goodness to Mankind, at length to
discover to them the Means of securing their Habitations and
other Buildings from Mischief by Thunder and Lightning. The
Method is this: Provide a small Iron Rod (it may be made of the
Rod-iron used by the Nailers) but of such a Length, that one End
being three or four Feet in the moist Ground, the other may be
six or eight Feet above the highest Part of the Building. To the
upper End of the Rod fasten about a Foot of Brass Wire, the Size
of a common Knitting-needle, sharpened to a fine Point; the Rod
may be secured to the House by a few small Staples. If the House
or Barn be long, there may be a Rod and Point at each End, and a
middling Wire along the Ridge from one to the other. A House
thus furnished will not be damaged by Lightning, it being
attracted by the Points, and passing thro the Metal into the
Ground without hurting any Thing. Vessels also, having a sharp
pointed Rod fix'd on the Top of their Masts, with a Wire from
the Foot of the Rod reaching down, round one of the Shrouds, to
the Water, will not be hurt by Lightning.
The opening phrase of this description anticipated a religious
objection to protective rods that would soon appear in America and
Europe. In the late summer or fall of 1752, grounded conductors
were installed on the Academy of Philadelphia (later the University
of Pennsylvania) and the Pennsylvania State House (later
Independence Hall). Figures 3 and 4 show fragments of the original
grounding conductors that were installed inside the tower of
Independence Hall and on the Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church in
David B. Rivers
Three key elements made up Franklin's protection system. Metallic
rods, or air terminals as they're now called, were mounted on the
roof of a structure and connected by horizontal roof conductors and
vertical down conductors to a ground connection. Because Franklin
initially thought point discharges might provide protection, the
first air terminals were thin, sharp needles mounted on top of an
iron rod. The first down conductors were chains of iron rods, each
several feet long, that were mechanically linked or hooked together
as shown in figures 3 and 4. Because the current in point
discharges is usually less than a few hundred microamperes, the
roof and down conductors could be mechanically hooked together and
attached to the inside walls of towers and steeples without
creating a hazard.
Because Franklin wanted to verify that lightning would actually
follow the path of a metallic conductor and determine what size
that conductor should be, in June 1753 he published a "Request for
Information on Lightning" in the Pennsylvania Gazette and other
Those of our Readers in this and the neighboring Provinces, who
may have an Opportunity of observing, during the present Summer,
any of the Effects of Lightning on Houses, Ships, Trees, Etc.
are requested to take particular Notice of its Course, and
Deviation from a strait Line, in the Walls or other Matter
affected by it, its different Operations or Effects on Wood,
Stone, Bricks, Glass, Metals, Animal Bodies, Etc. and every
other Circumstance that may tend to discover the Nature, and
compleat the History of that terrible Meteor. Such Observations
being put in Writing, and communicated to Benjamin Franklin, in
Philadelphia, will be very thankfully accepted and gratefully
In the summer of 1753, Dr. John Lining, a physician with many
scientific interests, verified Franklin's kite experiment in
Charleston, South Carolina, but when he tried to install a rod on
his house, the local populace objected. They thought that the rod
was presumptuous--that it would interfere with the will of God--or
that it might attract lightning and be dangerous.^11 In April of
that year, Franklin commented on that issue,
[Nollet] speaks as if he thought it Presumption in Man to
propose guarding himself against Thunders of Heaven! Surely the
Thunder of Heaven is no more supernatural than the Rain, Hail,
or Sunshine of Heaven, against the Inconvenience of which we
guard by Roofs and Shades without Scruple.
But I can now ease the Gentleman of this Apprehension; for by
some late Experiments I find, that it is not Lightning from the
Clouds that strikes the Earth, but Lightning from the Earth that
Strikes the Clouds.^12
In the following years, Franklin continued to gather information
about lightning, and in 1757 he traveled to London as an agent of
the Pennsylvania Assembly. In March 1761, Kinnersley sent Franklin
a detailed description of a lightning flash that struck a
Philadelphia house equipped with a protective rod. An observer had
reported at the time that "the Lightning diffused over the
Pavement, which was then very wet with Rain, the Distance of two or
three Yards from the Foot of the Conductor." Further investigation
showed that the lightning had melted a few inches of the brass air
terminal and Kinnersley concluded, "Surely it will now be thought
as expedient to provide Conductors for the Lightning as for the
Before Kinnersley's letter, Franklin had received reports of two
similar strikes to protected houses in South Carolina. In one case,
the points and a length of the brass down conductor had melted. In
the other, three brass points, each about seven inches long and
mounted on top of an iron rod, had evaporated. Moreover, several
sections of the iron down conductor, each about a half-inch in
diameter and hooked together, had become unhooked by the discharge
(see figure 4b). Nearly all the staples that held the conductor to
the outside of the house had also been loosened. "Considerable
cavities" had been made in the earth near the rod, sunk about three
feet underground, and the lightning had produced several furrows in
the ground "some yards in length." Franklin was pleased by these
reports, and replied to Kinnersley that "a conductor formed of nail
rods, not much above a quarter of an inch thick, served well to
convey the lightning" but "when too small, may be destroyed in
executing its office." Franklin sent the reports from South
Carolina to Kinnersley with a recommendation to use larger, more
substantial conductors and a deeper, more extensive grounding
system to protect the foundation of the house against the effects
of surface arcs and explosions in the soil.
Because all reports from North America showed that grounded rods
did indeed protect houses from lightning damage, in January 1762
Franklin sent an improved design for "the shortest and simplest
Method of securing Buildings, Etc. from the Mischiefs of
Lightning," together with excerpts from Kinnersley's letter and the
reports from South Carolina, to Scottish philosopher David Hume.
That letter was subsequently read to Edinburgh's philosophical
society, which published it in 1771.
18th centurty house with lightning rod
In the letter to Hume, Franklin recommended large, steel air
terminals, 5 to 6 feet long and tapered to a sharp point. He said
that any building with a dimension greater than about 100 feet
should have a pointed rod mounted on each end with a conductor
between them. All roof and down conductors should be at least a
half-inch in diameter, continuous, and routed outside the
building--the earlier design allowed routing the conductors inside
a building's walls. Any links or joints in these conductors should
be filled with lead solder to ensure a good connection. The
grounding conductor should be a one-inch-diameter iron bar driven
10 to 12 feet into the earth, and if possible, kept at least 10
feet away from the foundation. Franklin also recommended that the
ground rods be painted to minimize rust and connected to a well, if
one happened to be nearby. Figure 5 illustrates an implementation
of Franklin's 1762 design.
In the 1769 edition of Experiments and Observations, Franklin
published his reply to Kinnersley and the reports from South
Carolina together with some "Remarks" on the construction and use
of protective rods. After repeating his recommendations for an
improved design, he also noted a psychological benefit of having
protection against lightning:
Those who calculate chances may perhaps find that not one death
(or the destruction of one house) in a hundred thousand happens
from that cause, and that therefore it is scarce worth while to
be at any expense to guard against it. But in all countries
there are particular situations of buildings more exposed than
others to such accidents, and there are minds so strongly
impressed with the apprehension of them, as to be very unhappy
every time a little thunder is within their hearing; it may
therefore be well to render this little piece of new knowledge
as general and well understood as possible, since to make us
safe is not all its advantage, it is some to make us easy. And
as the stroke it secures us from might have chanced perhaps but
once in our lives, while it may relieve us a hundred times from
those painful apprehensions, the latter may possibly on the
whole contribute more to the happiness of mankind than the
Today, most authorities agree that lightning rods define and
control the points where lightning will strike the structure and
then guide the current safely into ground. As Franklin noted in
1761, "Indeed, in the construction of an instrument so new, and of
which we could have so little experience, it is rather lucky that
we should at first be so near the truth as we seem to be, and
commit so few errors." Franklin was truly lucky: His original 1752
design was based on the low current levels of point discharges, but
direct lightning strikes deliver tens of kiloamperes of current,
enough to produce explosive arcs across any imperfect mechanical
connections; and those arcs can produce momentary overpressures of
several hundred atmospheres and enough heat to ignite flammable
materials. The early applications of lightning rods could have been
disastrous. Franklin's 1762 design, however, has stood the test of
time and remains the basis for all modern lightning protection
codes in the world today.
'Snatching lightning from the sky'
It is difficult for us living in an electrical age to appreciate
how important lightning conductors were in the 18th century. The
discovery that thunderclouds contain electricity and that lightning
is an electrical discharge revolutionized human perceptions of the
natural world, and the invention of protective rods was a clear
example of how basic, curiosity-driven research can lead to
significant practical benefits. In his later years, Franklin
devoted most of his time to public service, but he did continue to
follow the work of others and conduct occasional experiments. He
also participated on scientific advisory boards and panels that
reviewed methods of lightning protection, and made recommendations
for protecting cathedrals and facilities for manufacturing and
Eventually, Franklin became a leader of the American Revolution.
When he embarked for France in November 1776 to seek aid for the
newly declared United States of America in the war against Great
Britain, he took with him a unique asset--his worldwide fame. By
then his work on lightning and electricity had called attention to
his other writings in science, politics, and moral philosophy,^15
and the intellectuals of France and Europe viewed Franklin as one
of their own.
In 1811, John Adams, the first vice president and second president
of the US, who served with Franklin in France in the 1770s (and who
actually hated him), summarized Franklin's reputation:
Nothing, perhaps, that ever occurred upon this earth was so well
calculated to give any man an extensive and universal celebrity
as the discovery of the efficacy of iron points and the
invention of lightning rods. The idea was one of the most
sublime that ever entered a human imagination, that a mortal
should disarm the clouds of heaven, and almost "snatch from his
hand the sceptre and the rod!" The ancients would have enrolled
him with Bacchus and Ceres, Hercules and Minerva. His
Paratonnerres erected their heads in all parts of the world, on
temples and palaces no less than on cottages of peasants and the
habitations of ordinary citizens. These visible objects reminded
all men of the name and character of their inventor; and, in the
course of time, have not only tranquilized the minds and
dissipated the fears of the tender sex and their timorous
children, but have almost annihilated that panic terror and
superstitious horror which was once almost universal in violent
storms of thunder and lightning. . . .
His reputation was more universal than that of Leibnitz or
Newton, Frederick or Voltaire, and his character more beloved
and esteemed than any or all of them. Newton had astonished
perhaps forty or fifty men in Europe; for not more than that
number, probably, at any one time had read him and understood
him by his discoveries and demonstrations. And these being held
in admiration in their respective countries as at the head of
the philosophers, had spread among scientific people a
mysterious wonder at the genius of this perhaps the greatest man
that ever lived. But this fame was confined to men of letters.
The common people knew little and cared nothing about such a
recluse philosopher. Leibnitz's name was more confined
still. . . . But Franklin's fame was universal. His name was
familiar to government and people, to kings, courtiers,
nobility, clergy, and philosophers, as well as plebeians, to
such a degree that there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a
valet de chambre, coachman or footman, a lady's chambermaid or a
scullion in a kitchen, who was not familiar with it, and who did
not consider him as a friend to human kind. When they spoke of
him, they seemed to think he was to restore the golden age.^16
In June 1776, the celebrated economist and former
comptroller-general of France, Anne-Robert Jacques Turgot, composed
a prophetic epigram in Latin that captures Franklin's legacy in a
single sentence: "Eripuit caelo fulmen, sceptrumque tyrannis" ("He
snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants").^17
I am grateful to Penelope Hartshorne Batcheler for calling my
attention to the photograph in figure 3.
Philip Krider is a professor in the Institute of Atmospheric
Physics at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
1. 1. Portions of this paper are based on the author's
presentation at the Inaugural Symposium of the International
Commission on History of Meteorology, International Congress of
History of Science, Mexico City, 11-12 July 2001, and on E.P.
Krider, in Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World, P.
Talbott, ed., Yale U. Press, New Haven, CT (2005), chap. 5.
2. 2. I. B. Cohen, Benjamin Franklin's Science, Harvard U. Press,
Cambridge, MA (1990), chap. 6.
3. 3. I. B. Cohen, Benjamin Franklin's Experiments: A New Edition
of Franklin's Experiments and Observations on Electricity,
Harvard U. Press, Cambridge, MA (1941).
4. 4. J. L. Heilbron, Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries:
A Study of Early Modern Physics, U. of Calif. Press, Berkeley
5. 5. Franklin's letters and associated quotations can be found in
The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, L. W. Labaree et al., eds.,
Yale U. Press, New Haven, CT, vol. 1 (1959) to vol. 37 (2003).
In the following citations, these volumes will be referred to
as Franklin Papers. The first letter is in vol. 3, p. 126, and
the remaining four letters are in vol. 3, pp. 156, 352, and 365
and vol. 4, p. 9.
6. 6. Ref. 4, chap. 15.
7. 7. Franklin Papers, vol. 4, p. 465.
8. 8. Ref. 2, chap. 8.
9. 9. J. Priestley, History and Present State of Electricity, with
Original Experiments, printed for J. Dodsley, J. Johnson, B.
Davenport, T. Cadell, London (1767), p. 179.
10. 10. Franklin Papers, vol. 5, p. 71.
11. 11. J. A. L. Lemay, Ebenezer Kinnersley: Franklin's Friend, U.
of Penn. Press, Philadelphia (1964), p. 78.
12. 12. Franklin Papers, vol. 4, p. 463.
13. 13. Franklin Papers, vol. 4, p. 293.
14. 14. Franklin Papers, vol. 10, p. 52.
15. 15. J. A. L. Lemay, ed., Benjamin Franklin Writings, The
Library of America, New York (1987).
16. 16. C. F. Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams, vol. 1, Little
Brown and Co, Boston (1856), p. 660.
17. 17. For further details on the influence of Franklin's science
on his fame and diplomacy, see P. Dray, Stealing God's Thunder:
Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America,
Random House, New York (2005) and S. Schiff, A Great
Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America,
Henry Holt, New York (2005).
Figure 1. This sketch of the "sentry-box" experiment conducted at
Marly-la-Ville, France, in 1752 was based on Benjamin Franklin's
proposal to determine whether thunderclouds are electrified. Silk
ropes (g) and wine bottles (e) insulated a 13-meter iron rod (a)
from ground, and covers (h) sheltered the ropes from rain. A person
standing on the ground could draw sparks from the rod or charge a
Leiden jar when a storm was in the area. (From B. Franklin,
Expériences et Observations sur L'Électricité . . . , 2nd ed., vol.
2, an extended translation from English by T. F. Dalibard, Chez
Durand, Paris, 1756.)
Figure 2. Modeled after a 1762 painting by Mason Chamberlain, this
etching depicts Benjamin Franklin looking at electrostatic bells he
used to study cloud electricity. Two chimes, separated from each
other by a small gap, are connected to rods that go up through the
roof and to ground. A thundercloud charges the right-hand bell,
either by induction or point discharge; the bell then alternately
attracts or repels a small ball suspended between the chimes on a
silk thread. The ball rattles between the bells, ringing an alarm
when a storm approaches. The electroscope hanging from the
right-hand bell was used to measure the cloud's polarity. A
grounded rod of Franklin's 1762 design can be seen through the
window. (Frontispiece from Oeuvres de M. Franklin, translated by
J.B. Dubourg, Chez Quillau, Paris, 1773.)
Figure 3. Independence Hall, Philadelphia. During a restoration in 1960,
fragments of the original grounding conductor were found under paneling
and plaster on the inside wall of the northwest corner of the tower
stairwell. (From the Independence National Historical Park Collection.)
Figure 4. David B. Rivers, pastor of the Gloria Dei (Old Swedes')
Church in Philadelphia, holds a section of the original iron
conductor that protected the church. The upper links in the chain
were stapled to the inside of a wooden steeple. The inset shows how
a mechanical link may have been ruptured, its hook forced open by
an explosive arc during a lightning strike. (Courtesy of E. Philip
Figure 5. An 18th-century house with a lightning rod of Franklin's
1762 design. The thick, continuous rod can carry tens of
kiloamperes of current to ground without harming the house or its
Scientist, Diplomat And Wit: Franklin's Birth Merits a Toast
By Hillel Italie
Tuesday, January 17, 2006; A15
At the Smithsonian, a tribute to his statesmanship is planned. In London,
an exhibit hails his medical contributions. But at McGillin's Olde Ale
House in Philadelphia, they know best how to honor Benjamin Franklin on
his 300th birthday: with a celebratory toast.
"He was a very jovial fellow who would meet at the taverns, discussing
the latest John Locke book or scientific breakthrough over a nice pint
of beer," McGillin's owner Chris Mullins said.
Franklin was a businessman, inventor, revolutionary, athlete (he is a
member of the United States Swim School Association Hall of Fame),
diplomat, publisher, humorist, sage and regular guy. "He certainly is
a multiplicity of persona, so one never knows which one is the real
Franklin," says Gordon Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian whose
books include "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin."
Franklin's approachability begins with his background. Unlike George
Washington or Thomas Jefferson, he did not grow up a landed
"gentleman." His rise, as Franklin himself later boasted, was "from
the Poverty and Obscurity in which I was born and bred, to a state of
affluence and some degree of Reputation in the World."
He was born in Boston on Jan. 17, 1706, the 10th son of a soap- and
candle-maker. Starting at age 12, he worked five years as an
apprentice at his brother James's newspaper, the New England Courant,
establishing himself as a prankster and satirist, and, not for the
last time, as "a little obnoxious to the governing party."
Over the next 30 years and beyond, he advanced himself as a printer,
publisher and humorist, composing such lasting epigrams as "Fish and
visitors stink in three days" and "Eat to live, and not live to eat."
For many, he is the founding American wit, grounded in plain talk, a
tradition carried on by Mark Twain and Will Rogers.
Franklin's greatest public triumph was probably as a diplomat,
persuading France to aid the colonies in their fight against the
British. But he needed no revolution to be a revolutionary, for he
changed the world by living in it. "The things which hurt, instruct,"
Middle-aged eyesight led him to design a single, all-purpose set of
glasses -- bifocals. A struggle to raise money for a public hospital
led to a plan by which private contributions would be equaled by
government funds, the "matching grant" formula in use to this day.
Among other credits: modernized street lights, volunteer firefighters,
fire insurance, lending libraries, odometers, daylight saving time and
lightning rods (inspired by a kite excursion).
"His demonstration that lightning was not supernatural had huge
impact," says Dudley Herschbach, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist. "Since
lightning had long been considered a prerogative of the Almighty,
Franklin was attacked for presumption, vigorously but in vain."
Herschbach, a Harvard University professor who has lectured frequently
on Franklin, says: "Franklin's scientific curiosity extended far
beyond his adventures with electricity. He made important discoveries
and observations concerning the motion of storms, heat conduction, the
path of the Gulf Stream, bioluminescence, the spreading of oil films,
and also advanced prescient ideas about conservation of matter and the
wave nature of light."
Franklin was an innovator, but, unlike Jefferson, not a poet; ideas
didn't matter unless they were useful. He was the country's original
pragmatist -- the classic American art of learning through experience,
not theory, that was refined and adopted by William James and John
Franklin now seems the safest of the founders to celebrate, but when
he died, in 1790, he was mistrusted by many in power as a Francophile
synonymous with the excesses of the French Revolution. The Senate
rejected a proposal to wear badges of mourning in his honor. A year
passed before an official eulogy was delivered, by a longtime
detractor, Anglican minister William Smith, who belittled Franklin as
"ignorant of his own strength."
Condemned as a Jacobin upon his death, he would be satirized as a
middlebrow member of the booboisie for more than a century after.
Sociologist Max Weber believed Franklin stood for the "earning of more
and more money combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous
engagement in life." Poet John Keats disliked "his mean and thrifty
maxims." Historian Charles Angoff labeled him "the father of all the
"It was elitism, sort of a condescending elitism that looked down on
Franklin for having basic middle class values," says Walter Isaacson,
author of a 2003 bestseller about Franklin. "For a long time, most
intellectuals saw him as a spokesman for capitalism and for making
money and getting ahead, a view of America many have had," says
historian Gordon Wood.
The denigration of Franklin was partly his own doing. His
"Autobiography," unfinished at his death but published posthumously,
immortalized him as a crafty self-made man for whom all virtue was but
a means to success.
But the "Autobiography" underplays other sides of Franklin: the
statesman, dissident and man of conscience, the former slaveholder who
eventually called for abolition, the belated rebel who overcame his
reverence for the British crown and helped coin one of the era's
immortal phrases: "We hold these truths to be self-evident."
Franklin is praised now by both the left and right.
"He was a defender of limited government, and he was very much opposed
to taking on excessive debt," says Mark Skousen, an author and
economist whose edition of the "Autobiography" includes a Franklin
quote of appeal to conservatives: "A virtuous and industrious people
may be cheaply governed."
David Koepsell, executive director of the Council for Secular
Humanism, said he believes Franklin "would have been dismayed by
religious fundamentalism in government. He was a free thinker about
many things and at least a skeptic about the afterlife and the
divinity of Jesus. He was a scientist, a man of letters and a man of
What would Ben Franklin do?
Posted on Tue, Jan. 17, 2006
By SHERRY BEASLEY
There is a controversial war going on. Political scandal involving a
big-name lobbyist looms large in the nation's capital. The issue of
individual freedom versus government surveillance is once again
rearing its ugly head. Partisan politics are raging over a nominee to
the nation's highest court. The price of fuel continues to rise, and
for these and a myriad of other reasons, Americans are experiencing a
season of discontent early on in 2006.
So on this day, the 300th anniversary of his birth, there is only one
question to ask: What would Benjamin Franklin do?
We, as a nation, have long lauded Ben Franklin as the original
American Renaissance man. We have loved his larger-than-life persona
of diplomat, scientist, inventor, statesman, writer, humorist --- and
the legendary exploits that took him from Boston and Philadelphia to
all over the European continent. The stories of his pragmatic, yet
playful, spirit are the stuff of our American history pantheon. Recent
biographies have let us know that Ben wasn't exactly an avuncular guy
all the time, and that he generated his share of controversy during
his long life. However, as a New York Times editorial recently put it,
Ben Franklin, with all his inconsistencies, was the "founder not only
of American institutions, but of an idea of America itself."
During this tercentenary year of Franklin's birth, there are
celebrations planned nationwide, and we will have many opportunities
to review the lists of this Founding Father's remarkable contributions
to America. We will be reminded that his inventions included items as
disparate as bifocals, swim fins, a urinary catheter, the lightning
rod, the odometer and the Franklin stove. He also originated the idea
of the first public lending library, the first public hospital, the
first fire company and fire and property insurance. He also suggested
the idea of daylight-saving time and was one of the first to chart the
Gulf Stream on his many voyages to Europe.
Sometimes we forget that Ben Franklin was the only American to sign
all four documents that helped to create the United States: the
Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance with France, the
Treaty of Peace with Great Britain and the U.S. Constitution. He was a
lifelong believer in collaborative thinking, and is credited with
instilling the importance of community service and devotion to
compromise in many of his fellow Founding Fathers. Franklin's own
belief in the "mixture of cynicism and idealism abounding in human
beings" shaped his realistic viewpoints.
These viewpoints had ample forums in Franklin's writing. He was an
author who commented wryly on his life and times in Poor Richard's
Almanac as well as in his own autobiography, both sources of the rich
proverbial sayings for which Franklin has become famous. How many of
us, for example, have not been told that "Early to bed and early to
rise make a man healthy, wealthy and wise"? We all know that a "Penny
saved is a penny earned" and that "Three may keep a secret if two of
them are dead."
Franklin's bon mots of wisdom and insight find quite a remarkable
application in 2006, three centuries after he originated them. For
example, if we consider the current lobbying scandal in Washington, we
should remember that Ben told us to "Sell not virtue to purchase
wealth, nor liberty to purchase power."
The current controversy over the war in Iraq finds a voice in Franklin
as well. Although Franklin supported the war with Great Britain, he
exhausted diplomatic means before the fighting began. He later uttered
the succinct critique of war when he said, "There was never a good war
or a bad peace." Franklin might address the policy of government
surveillance of citizens to thwart terrorism by his words written in a
letter in 1778: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a
little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
His statement "When the well's dry, we know the worth of water" might
apply indirectly to the global fuel supply and the rising cost of
gasoline. And Franklin would probably address our contemporary
fascination with vacuous celebrities such as the Paris Hiltons of the
world with his pithy statement that "People who are wrapped up in
themselves make small packages" or that "It's hard for an empty bag to
And to politicians and pundits who fill our airwaves with constant
chatter, Ben could have addressed his famous line, "Well done is
better than well said."
Ben Franklin also knew how to describe the human quality of charity
and generosity. Global response to tragedies like the tsunami, Katrina
or the earthquake in Pakistan would find fitting descriptors in
Franklin's pronouncements that "A good example is the best sermon" and
"What is serving God? Tis doing Good to Man."
As the tricentennial of his birth year gets under way, and we remember
how uniquely Benjamin Franklin shaped the character of America, a
final quote of his seems to be profound policy for all of us: "If you
would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either
write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing." From
presidents to politicians to pundits to us peons, this is very sound
advice indeed. Thanks, Ben, and happy 300th birthday.
Ms. Beasley is grants director for Clemson's Institute for Economic
and Community Development.
Making the best use of thrift
Posted on Tue, Jan. 17, 2006
By David Blankenhorn
How should we celebrate the 300th birthday of Benjamin Franklin of
Philadelphia, born this day in 1706? Today, we as a society may be
unsure of the answer. But as recently as the 1920s, millions of
Americans were quite sure. They honored Franklin by publicly extolling
the virtue of thrift, a character trait that Franklin tirelessly
championed. Yes, thrift.
Thrift is a complex idea. It includes, but has never been merely, the
habit of saving money. Thrift is much more than sound approaches to
managing one's finances, and the main goal of thrift has never been
the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself.
The word thrift comes from the verb thrive. Thrift is the ethic and
practice of best use. Being thrifty means making the wisest use of all
that we have - time, money, our possessions, our health, and our
society's natural resources - to promote both our own flourishing and
the social good. To use Franklin's favorite terms, thrift's core ideas
are "industry" (that is, diligence) and "frugality" (that is,
conservation). The ideas most contrary to thrift are idleness and
Despite what you may have heard, thrift embraces the pleasure
principle. When Franklin, in Poor Richard's Almanac, writes, "Fly
pleasures, and they'll follow you," he is offering a strategy for
pleasure. When he advises that "industry need not wish," he is
offering a strategy for getting one's wishes. That strategy, he tells
us, "consists very much in Thrift." Franklin openly proclaimed that
"wealth is not his that has it, but his that enjoys it." In the 1920s,
the slogan of Thrift Week - which began on Jan. 17, Franklin's
birthday - was "For Success and Happiness."
Thrift is therefore flatly inconsistent with miserliness, or hoarding,
or seeking wealth for wealth's sake. Franklin refused to accept money
for any of his many inventions and spent much of his life performing
public services for which he was not paid. One of the 10 planks of
National Thrift Week was "Share with Others." The idea is that being
thrifty enables us to be generous.
More broadly, thrift is a pathway to, not a rejection of, social
awareness and humane moral values. As Franklin earnestly put it, "The
noblest question in the world is, What good may I do in it?" Franklin
was an unabashed moral and civic reformer who viewed the thrift ethic
as essential to improving the national character and ensuring American
progress. In almost identical ways, the leaders of the National Thrift
Movement of the 1920s believed that their movement was vital to the
broad goals of moral reform, character education, and civic progress.
They conceived of thrift in broad, progressive terms. They wanted
parents to teach thrift to children as a part of character education.
They were pioneers in the science of home economics. They wanted
Americans to take better care of their health. They wanted farmers and
businesses to become more efficient. They were consistently critical
of American materialism and consumerism. They were also early
environmentalists, strongly supporting the protection of our natural
resources. In all of their efforts, they regularly invoked the legacy
of Ben Franklin, whom they called in their literature "the American
Apostle of Thrift."
Today, of course, this movement is hardly remembered. What a pity.
These men and women did good work. In so many ways, we are in their
debt - sometimes debt is good! - just as they were in Franklin's and
others' debt. Much of what they fought for is still quite relevant to
Yes, the word thrift today has a quaint, old-fashioned sound. Again,
what a pity. Our government budget deficits are ballooning out of
control. We Americans don't save much at all, even though most
economists agree that more savings and investment relative to consumer
spending would be good for us, both as individuals and as a society.
We waste a lot. We sometimes seem to think that buying more stuff will
make us happy. We sometimes seem confused about the relationship of
private gain to the public good.
What to do? Instead of inventing a new philosophy to help us wrestle
with these issues, we might consider dusting off an old one for
recycling. That would be the thrifty thing to do. And for what it's
worth, Ben Franklin would certainly approve.
David Blankenhorn (blankenhorn at americanvalues.org) is president of the
Institute for American Values and codirects a research project on
For Franklin, generosity and prudence were partners
http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/editorial/13642494.htm Posted on
Tue, Jan. 17, 2006
For Franklin, generosity and prudence were partners
A call to continue his legacy of public service
By Amy Gutmann
Benjamin Franklin's genius harnessed entrepreneurial energy and
intellectual creativity in the service of civic improvement.
Philadelphians were the lucky beneficiaries; their city became his
laboratory for imagining, inventing, and creating a better world.
For example, while other colleges were founded to train a privileged
class for the clergy and courts, here Franklin founded an academy to
teach practical subjects, discover new knowledge, and prepare great
future leaders. Today the academy Franklin founded is Philadelphia's
largest private employer and one of the world's great research
institutions: the University of Pennsylvania.
By linking higher education to self-improvement and to serving
society, Benjamin Franklin created the very framework for American
philanthropy and civic-mindedness.
Today, Philadelphians enjoy the benefits of Franklin's drive to create
America's first modern city. Concerned for safety and security, he
proposed fire-fighting and insurance associations. The nation's first
hospital grew out of his campaign to promote better health care. The
first free library system came from Franklin's desire to bring the
benefits of reading to everyone.
How can we draw on his legacy to help us forward into the 21st
One way is to improve education. Americans should concentrate on
providing students of all backgrounds with access to education that
prepares them for full participation in our democracy. An education at
most selective private colleges and universities, unfortunately,
remains beyond the reach of many qualified middle- and low-income
The students I know at Penn from underrepresented groups include a
gifted writer who is the daughter of an auto mechanic and the first in
her family to attend college; the son of a truck driver who has become
a standout at the Wharton School and a campus leader; and the son of a
grocery store clerk who wants to pursue both a doctorate in philosophy
and a law degree.
One of our highest priorities is increasing accessibility, making our
excellent undergraduate, graduate and professional educations more
accessible and affordable to the sons and daughters of our country's
middle- and low-
income families. Accessibility is one of the guiding principles of the
Penn Compact, a statement of purpose I first put forward in the fall
of 2004. We work hard to attract students of diverse socioeconomic
backgrounds from the Philadelphia region; although the numbers are
climbing, we can do even better.
At the same time Americans must continue to push for greater
opportunity in elementary and secondary schools - to bring higher
education to a more diverse group of students whose contributions will
be vital to our country's future.
At our university-assisted neighborhood K-8 public school, the Penn
Alexander School, many students come from low-income households.
Seventy-two percent of last spring's graduating eighth graders are now
enrolled in magnet high schools in Philadelphia, greatly improving
their chances of getting accepted to selective colleges or
Such are the future citizens Benjamin Franklin had in mind. But how to
assure that they will have a thriving community to support?
Franklin's success was rooted as much in his low-key style as in the
brilliance of his ideas. Franklin would float a proposal (sometimes
under a pseudonym), then step back while others took credit. He jumped
back into action when the moment came to drum up broader support.
Let's follow Franklin's example. Put the greater good ahead of
parochial interests. Collaborate on solutions, and share the credit.
Relearn the art of compromise, which Franklin gracefully modeled in
engineering the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.
In Philadelphia, opportunities are many to embrace these principles.
For years, Penn has been collaborating with our neighbors on
initiatives to improve public education, public health, economic
development, employment opportunities, and the physical landscape of
From such collaborations will grow efforts in the next decade to begin
converting 24 acres near 30th Street Station into parks and
recreational facilities; shops and restaurants; arts venues; buildings
for teaching, research, and technology transfer, and gateways along
the Schuylkill that better connect the university and West
Philadelphia to Center City.
Franklin loved to say, "People who are wrapped up in themselves make
small packages." His 300th birthday is the perfect occasion to follow
his inspiring example and open the package for as many people as
Amy Gutmann (president at pobox.upenn.edu) is president of the University
AP: Boston, city of Franklin's birth, barely celebrates 300th B-Day
By Andrew Ryan, Associated Press Writer | January 16, 2006
BOSTON --On Benjamin Franklin's 300th birthday on Tuesday,
Philadelphia will be the celebratory hub, boasting a 42-page
full-color guide to 85 events that include Ben's Birthday Bash at the
National Liberty Museum and a gala parade to his grave.
And what about in Boston, where the founding father was born and his
intellect and character nurtured?
"We are going to have a party, cake and everything," said Jessica
Kriley, a manager at the Old South Meeting House, where Franklin was
baptized having been born across the street on Jan. 17, 1706. They
expect several dozen revelers to attend a lecture.
How about the mayor's office? No events were scheduled. Maybe
something's planned at the Boston Public Library, as Franklin opened
the country's first public library?
"Hmmm," said a woman in the communications office. "The 17th. Nothing
comes to mind."
"It's pathetic," said Bill Meikle, 70, a Boston-based Franklin
impersonator for 20-plus years who won an Emmy Award playing the
founding father on television. "I can't explain it. I don't want to
sound like I'm ... moaning but there is massive indifference. It
starts with the top at city hall and extends to the cultural
The problem could be that when Franklin was 17 years old in September
1723, he left for Philadelphia. He fled from an abusive older brother
and a provincial, Puritan-controlled town.
"The great runaway," chuckled Walter Isaacson, author of "Benjamin
Franklin: An American Life." "I think Boston probably unfairly feels
left out because he ran away from town."
It could be more than that. Franklin did, after all, quip that Harvard
University was only able to teach "blockheads" and "dunces" how to
enter a room "genteelly," which is something that they could have
learned at a dance class.
Maybe that's why Boston's Museum of Science passed on a chance to host
a traveling $6 million exhibition marking Franklin's big 3-0-0.
Curators opted for a Star Wars exhibit instead.
"He did turn his back on the place," said Peter Drummey, librarian at
the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. "Still, I am struck by
the lack of local enthusiasm."
For its part the historical society launched an exhibition displaying
satirical essays that Franklin wrote for The New England Courant in
On its Web site, the society has posted a nostalgic letter Franklin
penned 61 years after he turned his back on his birthplace. "I long
much to See again my native Place," he wrote in 1784, "and once hoped
to lay my Bones there."
Franklin changed his mind. His bones rest near the corner of 5th and
Arch streets -- in Philadelphia.
"We are doing something for his birthday," said Michael Taylor,
president of Boston's Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, a
college started with money from its namesake's will after his 200th
The school is planning a forum hosted by Meikle in full character,
looking just as Franklin looked a few years before his death.
"The Franklin Institute is throwing me a party and I'm thrilled about
it," said Meikle, already playing the part. "I'm not going to get sour
grapes. I'm going to focus on the positive."
But for many serious Franklin-philes, Boston is not where it's at.
"I'll be in Philadelphia," said Isaacson, the author. "They are
throwing a huge party for him. Hundreds and hundreds of people are
Philadelphia is, after all, the town where Franklin became a famous
scientist, inventor, statesman, philosopher, musician and economist.
He served as the city's postmaster, and is its most famous -- albeit
adopted -- son.
That doesn't mean there isn't enough Franklin lore for Boston too.
"He loved the city, and it's a shame that nobody up there is paying
much attention," Isaacson said, speaking during a telephone interview
from his office in Washington D.C.
A computer chimed in the background.
"I'm getting e-mails from all the people in Philadelphia about what I
am supposed to do at the January 17th dinner," he said dismissively.
"Let me get back to work."
On the Net:
Massachusetts Historical Society: http://www.masshist.org/welcome/
Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology: http://www.bfit.edu/
Put your Franklinania to the test
http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/news/13642520.htm [No answers, but maybe
in the dead-tree version.] Posted on Tue, Jan. 17, 2006
Put your Franklinania to the test
1 Which of these foods is Franklin NOT credited with bringing to the
b) Parmesan cheese
c) Parmesan cake
d) deep-fried Twinkies
2 What exactly is "Benergy"?
a) A corrupt Texas oil company
b) The coupling of actor Ben Affleck with Czech supermodel Jenergy
c) A Philadelphia tourism marketing slogan.
d) A Pittsburgh football marketing slogan
3Franklin was born in Boston. His father, Josiah Franklin, was a:
a) rolling stone.
d) candlestick maker.
4 Franklin attended Boston Latin School, but he left:
a) when his first child was on the way.
b) when he was struck by lightning.
c) at the age of 10.
d) at the age of 13.
5 Franklin ran away from Boston and came to Philadelphia at age 17.
The only thing he had in his pocket was:
a) a $100 bill, hence the name.
b) A Dutch dollar and 20 pence.
c) Parmesan cheese.
d) three-day-old fish.
6 When Franklin was just a teenager, he wrote articles for the New
England Courant under the pseudonym of:
a) Dudley Doright.
b) Silence Dogood.
c) Doright Woman.
d) Doright Man.
7 Franklin is said to have enjoyed drinking a spicy beer brewed with
molasses and pieces of spruce tree, known as:
a) Michelob Ultra.
b) Spruce beer.
c) A White Hessian.
d) A microbrew.
8 In 1731, Franklin fathered an illegitimate son, William Franklin,
who grew up to become:
a) a spoilt ingrate.
b) Colonial governor of New Jersey.
c) A gay American.
d) A kite manufacturer.
9 Complete the following Ben Franklin quotation: "By failing to
prepare, you are preparing to ----."
a) invade Iraq.
b) father an illegitimate child.
10In 1758, Franklin conducted early experiments in refrigeration, and
later wrote: "one may see the possibility of... "
a) ice-cold, refreshing Bud Light!
b) freezing a man to death on a warm summer's day.
c) spending one's sunset years in the humid territories recently
explored by Ponce de Leon.
11 A known ladies' man, how many times did Franklin walk down the
aisle? (Careful, there could be a trick!)
12 Franklin was the founder of a legendary political discussion club
known as the:
13 From 1785 to 1790, Franklin held a job similar to that of governor
of Pennsylvania, although his actual title was:
a) president of the state Supreme Executive Council.
b) Knight Commander of the Most Exalted Order of Pennsylvanians.
c) Master of the Domain.
d) Leader of the Supremes.
14 One of Franklin's projects was to improve an 18th-century musical
instrument comprising water-filled glass bowls known as:
a) a harmonica.
b) an armonica.
c) a monica.
d) a honika.
15 In 1730, Franklin began publishing the legendary newspaper known
a) the Metro.
b) The Pennsylvania Gazette.
c) The Police Gazette.
d) American Colonies Today.
16Franklin's wife, and mother of two of his children, was named
17 Complete this famous Franklin statement, which is NOT being used by
Philadelphia tourism officials: "Fish and -------- stink in three
d) spruce beer
18 In 1749, Franklin was appointed president of the Academy and
College of Philadelphia. In 1791, it was merged with the University of
the State of Pennsylvania, to become:
a) Penn State.
c) The Connecticut School of Broadcasting.
19 The inner-city action flick "It's All About the Benjamins" takes
its name from the fact that Franklin's picture is on:
a) The most popular type of crack
b) A $100 bill
c) A $3 bill
d) A Snoop Dogg CD
20 Franklin didn't really write, "A penny saved is a penny earned." He
wrote, "A penny saved is... "
a) worth two in the bush.
b) for your thoughts.
c) two pence clear.
d) a waste of time.
21 In 1731, Franklin also started the first public:
b) ale house.
d) golf course.
22 On June 15, 1752, Franklin performed his famous electricity
experiment with a kite. Shortly after, a Russian scientist named Georg
Wilhelm Richmann tried the same thing, and was:
b) awarded the first Nobel Prize in physics.
c) blown 60 feet into the air.
23 It's hard to believe, butFranklin apparently was the first person
to figure out that:
a) the pope is Catholic.
b) pigs can't really fly.
c) most storms travel.
d) one size doesn't really fit all.
24 An intrepid reporter, Franklin is said to have gained a lot of his
a) senior administration officials.
b) hanging around farmers' markets.
c) hanging around popular taverns.
d) various and sundry girlfriends.
25 In 1757, Franklin was dispatched to England to protest the
influence of this in Pennsylvania politics:
a) Pay-to-play municipal contracting
b) The Penn family
c) The Casey family
d) The Gambino family
26 In 1768 in London, Franklin developed "A Scheme for a New Alphabet
and a Reformed Mode of Spelling" that:
a) proved he had way too much. spare time on his hands.
b) eliminated the letter "W" because Franklin did not like Washington.
c) would have eliminated six existing letters and added six new ones.
d) prompted the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
27 Franklin didn't write the Declaration of Independence, but he did:
a) add the part about "the pursuit of happiness."
b) edit it.
c) the penmanship.
d) draw the seldom-seen cover art.
28 Although he had owned two slaves, Franklin later became president
of the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in:
29 Franklin owned two slaves named George and:
30 The Pennsylvania Gazette frequently carried ads for:
a) go-go taverns in lower Bucks County.
b) Parmesan cheese.
c) the sale and purchase of slaves.
d) Franklin stoves.
Happy 300th, Ben! http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/news/13642465.htm
Posted on Tue, Jan. 17, 2006
Happy 300th, Ben!
By Tom Ferrick Jr.
If Benjamin Franklin were alive, he might skip the events planned
around town today for his 300th birthday.
Too much folderol for his taste, too much speechifying. Too much
Franklin, Franklin, Franklin.
It would offend his sense of modesty, and while Franklin wasn't humble
(he knew he was smarter than most), he worked hard at being modest.
It was a virtue he cultivated, aware of its value in everyday life. To
be a leader of men, he realized, it was best to be one of the guys:
generous in praise, respectful of divergent opinions, quick to give
credit to others, slow to take it himself.
In short, Franklin was a genius with a first-class disposition, a rare
thing. His brainpower, his energy, and his high emotional IQ made him
the de facto civic leader of Philadelphia, its go-to guy, while still
in his 30s.
The story of the founding of Pennsylvania Hospital is one example of
his uncanny ability to get things done.
It wasn't Franklin's idea. It was Dr. Thomas Bond, a London-trained
physician, who wanted a hospital for the poor and indigent. As Bond
pitched his idea around town, people invariably asked: Have you talked
Franklin embraced the plan. But how to raise the 4,000 pounds?
Franklin had an idea. (He always had an idea.) He had a citizen
petition presented to the Colonial Assembly, asking it to create a
When - as he knew they would - rural legislators objected to such a
large expenditure for Philadelphia, Franklin, a member of the
Assembly, rose and asked it to put forward half the money - but only
if the other 2,000 could be first raised privately. Assembly members
agreed, thinking that the private appeal would fail but that they
could collect political credits for their generosity.
Franklin then organized the fund-raising, the 2,000 pounds was raised,
the Assembly put up the other 2,000 pounds, and America's first
hospital was erected at Eighth and Pine Streets, where it stands
Thus did Ben Franklin invent one of the mainstays of modern
philanthropy: matching funds.
As Franklin wrote later: "I do not remember any of my political
manoeuvres, the success of which gave me at the time more pleasure..."
The hospital was chartered in 1751, three years after Franklin retired
to give time to civic and scientific pursuits.
To friends who asked why he would give up a lucrative printing
business, Franklin explained that when he died, he would rather have
people say that "he was useful" than "he was rich."
Even before his retirement at 42, Franklin found the time to run a
printing business, raise a family, publish a newspaper, write Poor
Richard's Almanack, help create the colonies' first fire department,
organize the city's town watch, start America's first lending library,
found what would become the American Philosophical Society, start the
college that became the University of Pennsylvania, lead the militia
that drove hostile Indian tribes from the Lehigh Valley, serve in the
colonial legislature, invent the Franklin stove, and begin his
groundbreaking experiments on electricity.
What to do for an encore?
After his retirement, Franklin completed his experiments in
electricity, served as representative of the colonies in England,
returned to Philadelphia to help draft the Declaration of
Independence, served as minister of the new nation in France, invented
the lightning rod and bifocals, charted the Gulf Stream, and helped
write the U.S. Constitution.
One problem with discussing Franklin in brief is that his life ends up
sounding like a list. But it's important to recall what an amazing
life it was, because Franklin has devolved into a caricature in
This birthday celebration gives us a chance to remember what an
astonishing man he was and how lucky we are that Benjamin Franklin
decided to devote his life to being "useful."
Contact Tom Ferrick at 215-854-2714 or tferrick at phillynews.com.
The Grandfather of our Country - Gallagher
January 17, 2006
January 17th marks the 300th birthday of Benjamin Franklin. Many
volumes have been written since his death 216 years ago that explore
his many accomplishments in a wide variety of endeavors. Despite this
much time passing, Franklins list of achievements and his lifes work
still stands up against the many generations of Americans that have
More impressive than any one achievement was his versatility in his
ability to contribute in so many areas of daily 18th century life. If
you lived in the colonies during that period more than likely your
home was heated by a Franklin stove, your church was protected by Bens
lightning rod, and your money was printed by him.
If you lived in Philadelphia you might have read books printed by him,
or took them out of a library he started. Your buildings were
protected by his fire brigade, fire insurance company or the night
watch that he started. In his spare time he led a militia that
protected your frontier.
Many a young man over the last two centuries has been lectured on
Franklins industriousness and his axioms on how to lead a productive
life. For today however it is another group of Americans that can take
a lesson from Franklin.
The first of the baby boomers are entering their sixties and beginning
the end game of their lives. As in every phase of their lives this
demographic crowd will have a major impact on the future of the United
States. How will the aging of this population contribute in a
productive way for themselves and to our country?
It is useful to look back at Franklin and observe that his
achievements in his old age are the ones that are likely to be the
most indelibly etched in American history as more centuries go by.
In an era when the average life span was somewhere in the forties
Franklin lived to be 84. It wasnt an easy 84 as he was beset with
maladies common to the times however despite these setbacks he was
Just after his seventieth birthday Franklin was busy as a
revolutionary involved by presiding at the constitutional convention,
editing Jeffersons work on the Declaration of Independence and
becoming its oldest signer.
To put Franklins age in context it might be useful to compare him to
some of the historical founding luminaries of the time, John Adams 41,
Sam Adams, 54, Thomas Jefferson, 33, George Washington 44, John Jay,
31 and John Hancock, 39.
At 70 Franklin only BEGAN his contribution to the birth and defense of
the fledgling nation. He spent the next nine years in Europe
tirelessly working to provide financial and material support for the
battle and subsequent peace back home. In 1782, he along with John Jay
and John Adams negotiated The Treaty of Peace with Great Britain.
In 1785 he made his last voyage home however he still wasnt done with
his contributions. In 1787, he was elected president of the
Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery; as well
servings as delegate to the Constitutional Convention.
As we all contemplate the aging process and where we fit in the scheme
of things we might stop and once again take a very hard look at the
old Ben Franklin. We cant be him nor can we duplicate his achievements
but we certainly can try to think like he did in his approach to all
aspects of our lives.
AP: In Year of Franklin's 300th Birthday, It's Good to Be Ben
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 15 (AP) - It is clear to anyone attending a
convention or visiting historic sites here that Ben Franklin is not
only alive 300 years after he was born but that he has also been
cloned. Several times.
Franklin has always had a big presence in Philadelphia. Mayor John F.
Street and others have recently endorsed renaming the 30th Street
train station in his honor. And the city's yearlong celebration of his
300th birthday has created a huge demand for the small cadre of people
who portray him.
Backstage at one recent convention, Franklin could be found with a
cellphone to his ear, making notes in his appointment book.
Yes, he said somewhat wearily, he can make it to the afternoon tea.
But is it all right if he comes late to the breakfast? He would really
like that extra half-hour of sleep.
Such tight scheduling is not uncommon for Ralph Archbold, perhaps the
city's best-known Franklin, who does around 500 events a year. Things
have been especially hectic lately, with some three dozen appearances
planned in the 10 days before Franklin's birthday bash on Tuesday at
the National Constitution Center.
But there is always a role for Franklin here, whether it is talking to
tourists, cutting ribbons, giving lectures, filming documentaries or
visiting local schools.
At first, young students are not sure what to make of the gentleman
with the waistcoat and cane, said Bill Robling, who has played
Franklin for about four years.
"Aren't you dead?" they ask.
And Mr. Robling said adults who meet Franklin at Independence Hall are
equally blunt in their inquiries about the sex life of a man who was a
Mr. Robling said he did not mind those kinds of questions, because
they provided an opening for him to discuss other aspects of
"Being Ben Franklin in his own words, in his own spaces, is probably
as rewarding as anything," said Mr. Robling, 61. "Plus, I love to
Another impersonator, Bill Ochester, said he was always glad to see
how those who were initially skeptical of his portrayal ended up being
fascinated by the conversation they had with his character.
"If I continue to play the role, you'd be amazed how much they buy
into it," said Mr. Ochester, 55.
The costume helps. Mr. Ochester, who also participates in
Revolutionary War re-enactments, wears replicas of 18th-century
clothing and shoes. Mr. Robling wears a custom-made wig. And Mr.
Archbold, who turns 64 on Franklin's birthday, has business cards
based on the 1781 design of Franklin's calling card.
The impersonators all say they have read extensively about their alter
ego, and keep up with the latest research.
Each can put his own stamp on the portrayal.
"All of us bring a different personality, a different approach," Mr.
Robling said. "We've all come from different backgrounds."
Mr. Archbold was an industrial photographer before falling into the
role 32 years ago; Mr. Ochester was a physician's assistant in
cardiothoracic surgery; and Mr. Robling has been an actor for more
than 30 years..
They decline to talk about how much they get paid. And while they
acknowledge they face some competition, the market seems to be big
enough for all of them.
Philadelphia is not the only market for Franklin - he can also be
found in Boston, the city where he was born, though he is sometimes
overshadowed there by Paul Revere and Samuel Adams.
Mr. Robling said if there was ever a need for more Franklins in
Boston, he would be interested in reprising his role: "Have wig, will
The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA
Ben Franklin offers lessons for our time
By Matthew Dennis
For The Register-Guard
Published: Sunday, January 15, 2006
In Paris, in 1784, Benjamin Franklin witnessed a landmark event in
aeronautical history - an unprecedented hot-air balloon ascent. When
some Parisians asked, what's the point? Franklin famously responded,
"What good is a newborn baby?"
Like few others, Franklin could imagine the future, and like few
Americans, he worked to secure that future - for himself, for his
country and for humanity.
Today, on the occasion of Franklin's 300th birthday, we are more apt
to ask, what good is a long-deceased historical figure? The answer in
Franklin's case: plenty.
We should celebrate Franklin on his birthday this Tuesday, not only
because he fundamentally shaped the future that has become our
present, but because his life continues to offer lessons for our time.
How appropriate for the man whose alter ego was "Poor Richard" - the
most famous advice-giver in American history, predating Dear Abby by
200 years. Poor Richard said, "Fools need Advice most, but wise Men
only are the better for it."
Which are we, fools or wise men? We can still agree that "a penny
saved is a penny earned," that "an apple a day keeps the doctor away,"
that "without pain there is no gain," that "honesty is the best
policy," and that "nothing is certain but death and taxes."
We might also consider Poor Richard's injunction: "Silence is not
always a Sign of Wisdom, but Babbling is ever a Mark of Folly." Read
on then, dear reader, and consider not these words mere babbling.
Franklin was born in Boston on Jan. 17, 1706 - only a decade removed
from the Salem Witch Trials - one of 17 children, the youngest son of
a candle and soap maker. His fate was to become a workingman, and he
was accordingly bound as an apprentice to his brother James, a
He showed great aptitude but little enthusiasm for his unfree state
and the domination of his brother. At the age of 17 in 1723, Ben
absconded to Philadelphia, violating the terms of his indenture (he
literally stole himself), and built a new life as journeyman and then
master printer and man of business.
By 1748 (at age 42) he was financially secure enough to retire to
devote himself more fully to science and public service. Franklin's
experiments with electricity made him America's greatest scientist and
brought him international fame.
Franklin embodied American geographic and social mobility - moving to
seek freedom and opportunity and pulling himself up by the proverbial
bootstraps, going from near rags to riches.
But he was more than a model of self-reliance, hard work and
individual ambition. He believed in community, responsibility,
equality and the common good, in reason and the life of the mind, in
peace more than war, and in a better future through technological
innovation and public investment.
Franklin recognized that not all shared the same possibility of
success. Many lacked Ben's luck, pluck and native brilliance, and some
were systematically held back, as apprentices, indentured servants or
Franklin sought to level the playing field and to become other
people's luck through his philanthropy and by creating (sometimes
inventing new) community institutions - public libraries, secular
public schools, research institutions and hospitals.
In our own age of corporate greed and unseemly battles over
intellectual property rights, Franklin is a beacon of integrity and
generosity, as he refused to patent any of his many inventions (the
lightning rod, the Franklin stove or bifocals, for example) or profit
from his civic improvements.
Instead, he shared his knowledge and innovations freely to improve the
world and the lives of his fellow citizens.
In the 1760s, Franklin denounced frontier violence against American
Indians and advocated respectful relations with native people. As Poor
Richard said, "Savages we call them because their manners differ from
An advocate of equality and opportunity, he served on the committee
that drafted the Declaration of Independence. If "all men are created
equal," he knew from personal experience that some labored in states
of bondage. In 1787, he became president of Pennsylvania's abolition
society and argued strenuously against the institution of slavery,
which would linger in America for almost another hundred years.
Franklin, a son of Puritan Boston, was a deist and skeptic, but he
tolerated and supported various faiths and advocated freedom of
religion, based on the separation of church and state. He appreciated
institutions - religious or secular - that promoted morality and
community. "What is serving God?" he asked. "Tis doing Good to Man."
As the Treaty of Paris (which he helped negotiate) ended the War for
Independence, Franklin wrote, "There was never a good War, or a bad
Peace." He wondered, "What vast additions to the Conveniences and
Comforts of Living might Mankind have acquired, if the Money spent in
Wars had been employed in Works of public utility!" Ben expressed
concern (legitimately, as it turned out) that the new hot-air balloon
might be used for military purposes.
Even in times of war, he urged citizens to preserve the basic
principles and arrangements that defined them as a free people: "Any
society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security
will deserve neither and lose both." Similarly apropos today, Ben
observed, "Wars are not paid for in wartime, the bill comes later."
Finally, Franklin enthusiastically supported pure and applied
research, and he saw education as the way to enlightenment, social
improvement, individual opportunity and success. As Poor Richard said,
"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest," and "Genius
without education is like silver in the mine."
Franklin challenged Americans to fund public education, including
higher education. He wrote to the president of Princeton College in
1784, "I am persuaded we are fully able to furnish our Colleges amply
with every Means of public Instruction, and I cannot but wonder that
our Legislatures have generally paid so little Attention to a Business
of so great Importance." Oregon legislators should take heed.
Franklin's words arrest our attention and continue to speak to us, not
merely because they are wise but because they are human and funny.
Late in life he wrote, "I guess I don't so much mind being old, as I
mind being fat and old." At the beginning of 2006, the rotund,
300-year-old Ben Franklin might give us this sage advice: "Be at war
with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year
find you a better man."
The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA
HoustonChronicle.com - Our intelligent design flap would astonish Franklin
Jan. 16, 2006, 7:10PM
Surely, our first scientist would want us to use brains
By NEAL LANE
TODAY marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Ben Franklin, one of
America's most famous founding fathers and the first American
Franklin's ideals and his wisdom are as fresh today as they were
during the troubled years of our nation's founding. I cannot help but
wonder how Franklin, a disciplined scientist and religious man, would
react to the idea of teaching "intelligent design" as an alternative
to the science of evolution in our schools.
Would he be surprised that the current president of the United States,
a self-proclaimed "education president," and the majority leader of
the Senate, a cardiovascular surgeon, have advocated such a change in
what our schools teach as science?
For his part, Franklin never had a problem reconciling his devotion
both to God and to the pursuit of scientific truth. While he was
unquestionably religious calling for regular morning prayers at the
Constitutional Convention he was insatiably curious, always
questioning, and he rejected all forms of intolerance. He believed
that science and mankind's understanding of nature, far from
questioning the existence of God, were ways to gain a deeper
appreciation of the nature, indeed the wonder, of God and His works.
How far we have come in 300 years. Scientists have built upon
Franklin's basic understanding of the nature of electricity to create
sophisticated electronics, cell phones, lasers, medical imaging
devices capable of resolving single molecules inside a living cell,
miniaturized computers and the global Internet, satellites and even
robotic explorers of distant planets.
In contrast to the many amazing advances made in science and
technology, we seem to have lost ground when it comes to religion. How
far apart we seem to be at least in time and understanding, if not in
geographical distance (only 62 miles) between Franklin's Philadelphia
and today's Dover, Pa., where a deeply divided community recently
awaited a court judgment concerning intelligent design.
Even before the judge ruled that it would be unconstitutional to teach
intelligent design as science, the majority of Dover's citizens had
already made their will known by tossing out the members of the school
board who favored intelligent design. But to be going through this at
all in a new millennium is truly remarkable.
Were Franklin alive today, he would undoubtedly attest that evolution
is a fact in the same way that gravitation and electromagnetism are
facts. The same scientific method was used to understand all three
aspects of nature. Early hypotheses become theories. Theories are
subjected to rigorous experimental testing, and factual descriptions
emerge. For centuries, that's how people, including Franklin, have
advanced their understanding of how nature works.
Notice that I do not say why nature works or what, ultimately, might
be behind the workings of nature; instead, science is our best
description of how nature works.
I know many scientists who are religious, and none of them considers
their faith in God to be in conflict with their faith in science or
the scientific method of discovery.
The belief that God created the universe, hence all of nature, is
fully consistent, in their minds, with the belief that science is how
we learn about nature.Why is this so difficult for some to accept?
I think the majority of the people who feel that children should be
exposed to alternative ideas to evolution are not expressing
irreconcilable religious beliefs but their own lack of understanding
of biological science.
The dismal quality of science education we provide in this country is
largely responsible for this lack of understanding. And all of us are
at fault for continuing to give such a low priority to educating
today's youth and tomorrow's leaders, even as our children's test
scores lag behind much of the rest of the world's.
As for Benjamin Franklin, we don't know, of course, what he might make
of all this. But given what we know about his views and philosophies
and his penchant for plain talk, I believe Franklin might express the
opinion that God created the heavens and Earth, the laws of nature, as
well as humans with brains, and that God might want us to use them.
Lane, a physicist, is a senior fellow in science and technology at
Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Malcolm
Gillis University Professor at Rice. He is a former director of the
National Science Foundation and served as assistant to the president
for Science and Technology during the Clinton administration.
Americas First Self-Made Man: Ben Franklin - 17 Jan 2006
AccountingWEB.com - Jan-17-2006 - January 17 is the 300th birthday of
Benjamin Franklin. While Franklin lived to the advanced age of 84, he
has not survived three centuries. His wisdom, however, has. Today, he
stands as a shining example of what it means to be an American
business man or woman.
Franklin was a citizen of the world, well-traveled, well-read,
multi-lingual and always striving to improve himself. He learned his
trade, printing, by working for someone else but eventually went out
on his own. His famous work ethic, early to bed and early to rise
helped him succeed to the point of driving his competition out of
business. Probably his greatest success was Poor Richards
Almanack,/I>from which many of his most well-known quotes, wit and
advice are taken. He was so successful as a printer, in fact, that he
retired at 42, bringing in a partner to run his printing business
while he devoted himself to the study of philosophy, which in those
days included scientific experiments and inquiries, and public
He was actually 42 when he retired, and he retired because he thought
he had better things to do with his time than make money. Franklin is
often cited as the prototype of the American capitalist. And it is
true that he was very successful in business. His Pennsylvania Gazette
was essentially The New York Times of his day. The Poor Richard's
Almanac, which ran for 25 years, was a great commercial success,
Professor Brands told National Public Radios Talk of the Nation. His
printing business made him a wealthy man. But by the age of 42, he had
as much money as he needed. He found an able managing partner in whose
hands he put the business, and he retired to study philosophy. And
philosophy in those days, of course, encompassed science and the
general study of the natural world. He thought that was a better use
of his time at that point. And so he had had enough of business.
Dr. Blaine McCormick, a professor of business at Baylor University,
has distilled and updated Franklins prolific writings into 12 rules of
* Finish better than your beginnings.
* All education is self-education.
* Seek first to manage yourself, then to manage others.
* Influence is more important than victory.
* Work hard and watch your costs.
* Everybody wants to appear reasonable.
* Create your own set of values to guide your actions.
* Incentive is everything.
* Create solutions for seemingly impossible problems.
* Sometimes its better to do 1,001 small things right than only one
large thing right.
* Deliberately cultivate your reputation and legacy.
These rules are explained in greater detail in the book Ben Franklins
12 Rules of Management: The Founding Father of American Business
Solves Your Toughest Business Problems.
In recent months, several new books about Franklin have been published
giving the impression that he the clear favorite of the Founding
Fathers. There are several reasons for this. His long life, open mind
and extensive writings have left a wealth of material for us to study
covering many topics still facing us today, often from different
perspectives. For accountants, however, in the wake of scandals and
increased scrutiny, his best advice may be: Think of these things,
whence you came, where you are going, and to whom you must account.
'Benjamin Franklin': The Reluctant Revolutionary
By SUSAN DUNN
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN By Edmund S. Morgan. Illustrated. 339 pp. New Haven:
Yale University Press. $24.95.
"I love Company, Chat, a Laugh, a Glass, and even a Song, as well as
ever,'' Benjamin Franklin wrote when he was in his 50's. He delighted in
others and wanted to be liked by them. ''I never saw a man who was, in
every respect, so perfectly agreeable to me,'' an English friend said
about him, adding that ''some are amiable in one view, some in another, he
in all.'' But Franklin was more than a magnetic extrovert: he channeled
his sociability and extraordinary curiosity about the natural world and
its inhabitants into decades of energetic commitment to his Philadelphia
community and his revolutionary nation.
In this engaging and readable book, Edmund S. Morgan, the Sterling
professor of history emeritus at Yale and the author of ''Inventing the
People'' and ''American Slavery, American Freedom,'' among other works,
does more than recount the colorful and gripping story of Franklin's long,
action- and idea-filled life; he also skillfully dissects the man's
personality and mind, his social self and political beliefs, deftly
exploring in ''Benjamin Franklin'' how the two halves of his being lived
together, not always in harmony.
Franklin had strong convictions, though in public he bowed to the ideas of
others, diplomatically avoiding confrontation. He was ''the least
doctrinaire of men,'' Morgan remarks. His recipe for power was to be
inconspicuous. ''He was not without ambition,'' Morgan writes, ''he was
simply too shrewd to show it.'' In his missions abroad, he endeavored to
promote the policies of those he spoke for, keeping his own opinions to
And yet, when Franklin represented American interests in England in the
early 1770's, there was often a disconnect between the moderate,
conciliatory tack he took and the more aggressive stance of his
counterparts back home. He was a latecomer, Morgan underscores, to their
intransigent assertion of American rights, sharing neither their horror at
British taxation of the colonies nor their appetite for independence. For
him, the future lay in an Anglo-American empire of equals. As late as 1774
he was still trying to hold the empire together -- or at least his vision
Then, the transformation. Upon his return to America, Franklin swiftly
became a firebrand. ''He does not hesitate at our boldest measures,'' John
Adams noted, ''but rather seems to think us too irresolute, and
backward.'' Even so, if Franklin became a fervent patriot, it was by
default, because of England's self-defeating, arrogant rejection of
As American minister to France, he brilliantly charmed and maneuvered the
French into helping to finance -- and win -- the American War of
Independence, at the cost of emptying their treasury and precipitating
their own revolution. Still, as Morgan points out, Franklin preferred, to
the waging of war, the simple, rational idea that territory could be had
through cash purchase, however high the price. But if a war had to be
fought, he wanted Americans to fight it themselves, without foreign
There was a different kind of disconnect between Franklin's democratic,
majoritarian political ideas and the checking-and-balancing caution of
framers like James Madison. At the Constitutional Convention, Franklin
pushed for a unicameral legislature and a weak executive council with no
veto power. His proposals were treated, Madison wrote, with great respect
for their ''author'' rather than for their ''practicability.''
Franklin's political ideas were to the populist left of the mainstream,
and the Constitution was not entirely his cup of tea. But, understanding
its critical importance, he accepted it and, in the self-effacing,
tolerant language of an Enlightenment gentleman and diplomat, urged others
to do the same. ''The older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own
judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others,'' he remarked
as the convention drew to a close. ''Thus I consent, Sir, to this
Constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that
it is not the best.'' For Franklin, public service -- and virtue -- meant
doing what the people wanted, not simply what he wanted, Morgan concludes
in this illuminating work.
When a man's life was over, Franklin once wrote, it should be said that he
lived usefully, not that he died rich. Useful -- to others -- Franklin
was. And rich, too, in the respect of history.
Susan Dunn is the author of ''Sister Revolutions: French Lightning,
American Light'' and the forthcoming ''Showdown: The Revolution of 1800.''
'To Begin the World Anew': The Founding Yokels
By RICHARD BROOKHISER
If the storms of fashion that have pounded the humanities during the last
30 years have spared the study of early American history, one of the
scholars we have most to thank is Bernard Bailyn. Bailyn's 1967 classic,
''The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,'' kept the eyes of a
generation of historians on the subjects that early Americans themselves
eyed so obsessively: the ideas and the politics of a highly intellectual
and political time. There were battles to be fought and money to be made
during the American Revolution, and without victory in the first, or the
lure of the second, the Revolution would never have been won. But the
thoughts of even soldiers and speculators kept returning to politics, and
to the ideals that they believed politicians lived to defend, or to
threaten. Bailyn made the founders comprehensible, and lively -- for their
ideas still march through our minds.
''To Begin the World Anew,'' a slim and handsome volume, is a collection
of what Bailyn calls ''sketches'' on issues arising out of his lifework:
the thought of Thomas Jefferson and the pizazz of Benjamin Franklin; the
fear that the Constitution provoked in so many Americans when it was first
presented to them, and the lessons that the rest of the world took from it
after it had been ratified. The most important sketch is the first, which
began life as a Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the
Humanities, and which explains the influence on the founders of the fact
that they were ''provincials -- marginal, borderland people.'' The best of
these essays are like after-dinner speeches by a guest of honor who knows
his subject so well that he can treat it lightly, and who has brought
excellent slides with him.
The essay on Jefferson is the slightest. Bailyn draws attention to the
ambiguities in his thought -- his glimpse of ''what a wholly enlightened
world might be'' versus the compromises he made as a politician and an
administrator to advance his agenda of the day. Basically, though, the
essay is hero worship -- Ken Burns, one more time. This will no longer do.
Jefferson's reputation has been taking on water at an alarming rate, from
the twin leaks of Sally Hemings and the larger question of slavery.
Federalist sympathizers, disgusted with his coldness, his cant and his
many deceptions, may be tempted to view Jefferson's posthumous troubles
with glee. But if Americans commit parricide on him, they commit suicide.
Jefferson must be defended by those who love him toughly -- who know him
well enough to dislike him, but who know themselves well enough to know
what they owe him.
Bailyn's essay on The Federalist Papers begins with a wonderful line of
Talleyrand (who had spent two years of exile in the United States, where
he befriended Alexander Hamilton, one of The Federalist's main authors).
When a Spanish diplomat admitted that he did not know the book, Talleyrand
''wasted no sympathy on him: 'Then read it,' he told the envoy curtly,
'read it.' '' People have been reading it ever since -- quite a tribute to
a collection of hastily written newspaper essays that were often ''under
the pen,'' as James Madison, the other main author, wrote, ''whilst the
printer was putting into type'' the lead paragraphs. Bailyn places The
Federalist in a four-step process of the Constitution's creation. The
document was drafted in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787; the state
ratifying debates, which lasted through July of 1788, supplied the first
authoritative glosses; the First Congress, which began meeting in the
spring of 1789, wrote the Bill of Rights and the Judiciary Act; and the
first term of the Washington administration (1789-93) defined aspects of
the executive branch like the cabinet and the president's treaty-making
The Federalist belonged to the blizzard of polemics that accompanied Stage
2. Most of the polemics came from the anticonstitutional side, and were
motivated by fear. Some were silly -- what was there, North Carolinians
asked, to prevent the pope from becoming president? Some were prescient --
Brutus,'' a New York writer, thought the power to tax ''will introduce
itself into every corner of the city and country.'' America had thrown off
one onerous government; was it saddling itself with another? The
Federalist tirelessly addressed those fears. Its ultimate answer was a
modest measure of hope: ''There is a portion of virtue and honor among
mankind,'' Hamilton wrote, ''which may be a reasonable foundation of
In a short but surprising essay (surprising to Americans, at any rate),
Bailyn follows those hopes into the world, where the American example had
a mixed run. English radicals looked to America as a beacon; French
radicals toyed with its institutions at the beginning of their revolution,
before turning onto a more populist path. America's strongest impact was
on Switzerland and Argentina -- two turbulent countries that profited from
the idea of federalism. Hamilton's modesty was as well judged as his
In the misleadingly titled ''Realism and Idealism in American Diplomacy,''
Bailyn hits top form. The real subject is the protean genius of Benjamin
Franklin at recreating himself and his image. We meet the shape-shifter in
his first portrait, painted when he was 40, as a middle-class man. As
Franklin becomes a famous scientist, he poses with experimental
paraphernalia. By the time he is 60, he sits beside a bust of Newton, in a
blue velvet suit with gold trim -- a picture of intellectual and worldly
success. Ten years later, in 1776, his newborn country sends him as its
minister to France, where Franklin adopts a new look -- a plain dark suit,
a cap of marten fur and long straight hair.
The French went wild. Franklin seemed like a 70-year-old child of nature,
or of Rousseau (Rousseau, Bailyn notes, had worn a similar fur cap in a
famous portrait). Franklin's face appeared on prints, medallions, busts
and teacups. The apotheosis came in a 1778 portrait by Joseph Siffred
Duplessis. Bailyn writes that this face -- hatless now -- is worn, the
skin pouched, the eyes somewhat puffed and tired.'' Yet it ''radiates
experience, wisdom, patience, tolerance . . . unconstrained by
nationality, occupation or rank.'' Franklin had become identified ''with
humanity itself, its achievements, hopes and possibilities.'' All these
images were propaganda -- by boosting himself, Franklin boosted the United
States. But he hit his grandest note when he employed the fewest
How did Americans come to entertain such aspirations? Bailyn's lead essay,
''Politics and the Creative Imagination,'' takes its framework from an
essay by the art critic Kenneth Clark entitled ''Provincialism.'' When the
culture of the metropolis becomes stale, provincials can bring to it, as
Bailyn gives us Clark's argument, ''the vigor of fresh energies.''
Colonial America, Bailyn reminds us, was a small and remote place. Bailyn
makes the point by comparing the houses of rich Americans -- the Byrds and
Carters of Virginia, the Van Cortlandts of New York -- with houses in
England. Blenheim Palace is obviously from a different world, a ducal
Brasilia. But even the stately homes of the lesser English gentry, which
resemble their American counterparts in scale, reveal, in their interiors,
riches of art and ornament that were unknown across the Atlantic.
Similarly, the English country squires and their ladies painted by
Gainsborough comport themselves with an assurance that makes the
farmer-lawyer Roger Sherman of Connecticut, painted by Ralph Earl, look
''rustic'' and ''clumsy in manner'' -- which indeed Sherman was.
Yet, Bailyn reminds us, Sherman ''was one of the most innovative political
thinkers of his age.'' Sherman and his fellow rustics were innovative
because they challenged received opinions, such as Montesquieu's belief
that republics must be small, or the almost universal belief that dual
sovereignties -- states within nations -- could not coexist. ''I ask,''
Bailyn quotes Oliver Ellsworth, another Connecticut rustic, ''why can they
not? It is not enough to say they cannot. I wish for some reason.'' The
answers to their pert questioning included The Federalist, the
Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Bailyn's picture of feisty provincials raises a doubt. Do we have too much
money, too many weapons and too many professors to be as intelligent as
the founding rubes? Has our ''constitutional establishment'' become
''self-absorbed, self-centered and . . . distant from the ordinary facts
Anxiety about our own decadence is also a very old feature of American
life. Hold on to that thought. The slob you see may be your savior.
Richard Brookhiser is the author, most recently, of ''America's First
Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918.''
The Founding Fathers Were NOT Christians
The Founding Fathers Were Not Christians by Steven Morris, in
Free Inquiry, Fall, 1995 (If you want to complain about this article,
complain to Steven Morris, who wrote it)
"The Christian right is trying to rewrite the history of the United States
as part of its campaign to force its religion on others. They try to
depict the founding fathers as pious Christians who wanted the United
States to be a Christian nation, with laws that favored Christians and
This is patently untrue. The early presidents and patriots were generally
Deists or Unitarians, believing in some form of impersonal Providence but
rejecting the divinity of Jesus and the absurdities of the Old and New
Thomas Paine was a pamphleteer whose manifestos encouraged the faltering
spirits of the country and aided materially in winning the war of
Independence: I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish
church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church,
by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of...Each of those
churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve
them all." From: The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, pp. 8,9 (Republished
1984, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY)
George Washington, the first president of the United States, never
declared himself a Christian according to contemporary reports or in any
of his voluminous correspondence. Washington Championed the cause of
freedom from religious intolerance and compulsion. When John Murray (a
universalist who denied the existence of hell) was invited to become an
army chaplain, the other chaplains petitioned Washington for his
dismissal. Instead, Washington gave him the appointment. On his deathbed,
Washinton uttered no words of a religious nature and did not call for a
clergyman to be in attendance. From: George Washington and Religion by
Paul F. Boller Jr., pp. 16, 87, 88, 108, 113, 121, 127 (1963, Southern
Methodist University Press, Dallas, TX)
John Adams, the country's second president, was drawn to the study of law
but faced pressure from his father to become a clergyman. He wrote that he
found among the lawyers 'noble and gallant achievments" but among the
clergy, the "pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces". Late in life he
wrote: "Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon
the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible worlds,
if there were no religion in it!"
It was during Adam's administration that the Senate ratified the Treaty of
Peace and Friendship, which states in Article XI that "the government of
the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian
Religion." From: The Character of John Adams by Peter Shaw, pp. 17 (1976,
North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC) Quoting a letter by JA to Charles
Cushing Oct 19, 1756, and John Adams, A Biography in his Own Words, edited
by James Peabody, p. 403 (1973, Newsweek, New York NY) Quoting letter by
JA to Jefferson April 19, 1817, and in reference to the treaty, Thomas
Jefferson, Passionate Pilgrim by Alf Mapp Jr., pp. 311 (1991, Madison
Books, Lanham, MD) quoting letter by TJ to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, June,
Thomas Jefferson, third president and author of the Declaration of
Independence, said:"I trust that there is not a young man now living in
the United States who will not die a Unitarian." He referred to the
Revelation of St. John as "the ravings of a maniac" and wrote: The
Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every
understanding and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of
Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which
might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give
employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power, and
pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself
are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not
yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious
reason that nonsense can never be explained." From: Thomas Jefferson, an
Intimate History by Fawn M. Brodie, p. 453 (1974, W.W) Norton and Co. Inc.
New York, NY) Quoting a letter by TJ to Alexander Smyth Jan 17, 1825, and
Thomas Jefferson, Passionate Pilgrim by Alf Mapp Jr., pp. 246 (1991,
Madison Books, Lanham, MD) quoting letter by TJ to John Adams, July 5,
"The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme
being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the
fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." -- Thomas
Jefferson (letter to J. Adams April 11,1823)
James Madison, fourth president and father of the Constitution, was not
religious in any conventional sense. "Religious bondage shackles and
debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise." "During
almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been
on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and
indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both,
superstition, bigotry and persecution." From: The Madisons by Virginia
Moore, P. 43 (1979, McGraw-Hill Co. New York, NY) quoting a letter by JM
to William Bradford April 1, 1774, and James Madison, A Biography in his
Own Words, edited by Joseph Gardner, p. 93, (1974, Newsweek, New York, NY)
Quoting Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments by JM,
Ethan Allen, whose capture of Fort Ticonderoga while commanding the Green
Mountain Boys helped inspire Congress and the country to pursue the War of
Independence, said, "That Jesus Christ was not God is evidence from his
own words." In the same book, Allen noted that he was generally
"denominated a Deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being
conscious that I am no Christian." When Allen married Fanny Buchanan, he
stopped his own wedding ceremony when the judge asked him if he promised
"to live with Fanny Buchanan agreeable to the laws of God." Allen refused
to answer until the judge agreed that the God referred to was the God of
Nature, and the laws those "written in the great book of nature." From:
Religion of the American Enlightenment by G. Adolph Koch, p. 40 (1968,
Thomas Crowell Co., New York, NY.) quoting preface and p. 352 of Reason,
the Only Oracle of Man and A Sense of History compiled by American
Heritage Press Inc., p. 103 (1985, American Heritage Press, Inc., New
Benjamin Franklin, delegate to the Continental Congress and the
Constitutional Convention, said: As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of
whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his
Religion...has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most
of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity; tho'
it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and
think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an
opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble." He died a month
later, and historians consider him, like so many great Americans of his
time, to be a Deist, not a Christian. From: Benjamin Franklin, A Biography
in his Own Words, edited by Thomas Fleming, p. 404, (1972, Newsweek, New
York, NY) quoting letter by BF to Exra Stiles March 9, 1790.
The words "In God We Trust" were not consistently on all U.S. currency
until 1956, during the McCarthy Hysteria.
The Treaty of Tripoli, passed by the U.S. Senate in 1797, read in part:
"The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the
Christian religion." The treaty was written during the Washington
administration, and sent to the Senate during the Adams administration. It
was read aloud to the Senate, and each Senator received a printed copy.
This was the 339th time that a recorded vote was required by the Senate,
but only the third time a vote was unanimous (the next time was to honor
George Washington). There is no record of any debate or dissension on the
treaty. It was reprinted in full in three newspapers - two in
Philadelphia, one in New York City. There is no record of public outcry or
complaint in subsequent editions of the papers.
Contradictions in the Bible
The Flat Earth
AMERICA- Not A Christian Nation Another site with more quotes of the
The Nuclear Family Meltdown
Mother Earth on the Chopping Block (The Coming Corporate World
Look into the eyes of the advertising demon!
Pat Buchanan: Pit Bull in Wolf's clothing
1. http://www.dimensional.com/~randl/mccart.htm 2.
'Benjamin Franklin': The Many-Minded Man New York Times Book Review, 3.7.6
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: An American Life. By Walter Isaacson. Illustrated. 590
pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $30.
By JOSEPH J. ELLIS
For reasons that no one has adequately explained, those prominent
Americans often mythologized and capitalized as Founding Fathers, or
alternatively demonized as the deadest-whitest-males in American history,
have surged into vogue over the past decade. John Adams, Alexander
Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson appeared to be the chief beneficiaries of
this trend until recently, when Benjamin Franklin moved into contention.
First H. W. Brands produced a well-received cradle-to-grave life of
Franklin, then Edmund Morgan came forward with a beguilingly Boswellian
character study of the great American sage. Now Walter Isaacson joins the
list with a full-length portrait virtually assured to bring Franklin's
remarkable career before a sizable readership.
Isaacson wrote this book while serving as managing editor at Time and then
as head of CNN, both full-time jobs that presumably left little
opportunity for travels back to the 18th century. But anyone assuming that
''Benjamin Franklin: An American Life'' is aimed at the coffee table would
be dead wrong. It is a thoroughly researched, crisply written,
convincingly argued chronicle that is also studded with little nuggets of
fresh information. Among the items that were new to me: that Franklin
investigated ways to make flatulence less odorous, and that Davy Crockett
went down at the Alamo carrying a copy of Franklin's ''Autobiography'' in
Instead of Franklin's Boswell, Isaacson comes across as his Edward R.
Murrow, diligently and often deftly interrogating the man while sifting
through the veritable mountain of scholarship that has accumulated around
him over the past two centuries. If anything, Isaacson engages in a bit of
scholarly overkill at the end, providing a separate conclusion and
epilogue on Franklin's legacy, a chronology of important dates, brief
biographies of all the supporting characters in the story, conversion
tables that provide modern dollar equivalents for British and colonial
currency, an annotated bibliography and about 50 pages of endnotes. The
erudition is somewhat conspicuous here, but it is also impressive.
The long arc of Franklin's life (1706-90) presents a major challenge to
all biographers. As a boy he traded anecdotes with Cotton Mather about
Puritan theology; as an elder statesman he compared notes with Thomas
Jefferson on the likely course of the French Revolution. Franklin was also
ubiquitous, the only person present at all three founding moments of
American independence: the drafting of the Declaration of Independence;
the negotiations that produced the Treaty of Paris, which ended the
Revolutionary War; and the great debate that resulted in the Constitution.
And beneath his folksy facade, Franklin was a world-class scientist, an
accomplished prose stylist and a brilliant diplomat. (Think of Jonas Salk,
Mark Twain and Henry Kissinger all rolled into one.) To top it off, he was
a man of multiple masks, protean in his personas as well as his talents,
gliding effortlessly from Poor Richard to promiscuous London bon vivant to
backwoods Voltaire. Chronologically, intellectually and psychologically,
he is a stretch.
Isaacson recognizes from the start that the character portrayed in the
''Autobiography'' is one of Franklin's most artful inventions. He argues
persuasively that Franklin's sharpest critics, from Max Weber to D. H.
Lawrence, have directed their fire more at his masks than at the man
beneath them. Rather than deploy elaborate psychological theories to
explain Franklin's interior agility, Isaacson prefers an old-fashioned
kind of explanation -- a narrative account of his career accompanied by
interpretive assessments at the most salient moments of Franklinesque
magic. If I read him right, Isaacson thinks it is both futile and
misguided to search for the core Franklin among the ever-shuffling selves,
since Franklin's orchestration of his different voices became the central
feature of his personality.
The earliest chapters cover Franklin's ascent in Philadelphia from a
penniless adolescent to its leading citizen. Isaacson complicates the
familiar Horatio Alger theme of the ''Autobiography'' by noticing
Franklin's early tendency to adopt fictional pseudonyms (for example,
Silence Dogood) and to present his convictions obliquely in satirical
fables, giving his public image a flirtatious and forever flickering
quality. He also lingers over the oddly aloof version of intimacy he
fashioned with Deborah Read, his semiliterate wife, and his illegitimate
son, William, whom he would raise but eventually disown. While a famous
advocate of family values in theory, Franklin was in practice an elusive
husband and father whose most sustained expressions of affection came late
in life with his grandchildren.
During the 1750's and 60's Franklin spent the bulk of his time in London
seeking a royal charter for Pennsylvania to replace the proprietary
government of the Penn family. Even within the most rarefied chambers of
the American academy, scholars disagree about this phase of Franklin's
career, in part because the political context in both Philadelphia and
London is so tangled, in part because Franklin's allegiance to the British
Empire does not fit comfortably with his subsequent commitment to
independence. As Isaacson sees it, Franklin misread the mounting American
opposition to British rule because he harbored a vision of the empire as a
trans-Atlantic community of equal partners, an international theater in
which British glory and his own burgeoning reputation would rise together.
Though he was destined to become the prototypical American, Franklin came
to American independence late in the game, and abandoned his identity as a
Briton reluctantly. Isaacson does not say so explicitly, but he suggests
that Franklin's dramatic renunciation of his son, who remained a Loyalist,
had its roots in his agonized struggle with his own political allegiance.
William, in effect, was the British side of Franklin that had to be
Isaacson's most impressive chapter, a little tour de force of historical
synthesis, focuses on Franklin's role during the Paris peace negotiations
that ended the War of Independence. Again, this is bloody and
well-trampled ground, littered with the bodies of several generations of
historians. Isaacson's previous work as a student of American foreign
policy and biographer of Henry Kissinger serves him well here. He somehow
manages to sift his way through the diplomatic debris and recover
Franklin's exquisite sense of the competing objectives among the American,
British and French delegations, all the while recognizing that John Adams
and John Jay were correct to insist, against Franklin's instincts, on a
separate bargain with the British that left the French marooned and
unrewarded. The most recent French-American diplomatic minuet, it would
seem, has a long history.
Whatever the source of our current fascination with the founding
generation, Isaacson's life of Franklin exemplifies the interpretive trend
that defines the best of the recent biographies: namely, a flair for
finding flaws within greatness. My sense is that Isaacson's own career as
an executive within the media world has given him an affinity for
Franklin's self-conscious manipulation of multiple versions of himself, an
empathy for Franklin's always enlightened and often playful duplicities.
For all these reasons, a definitive biography of Franklin is a
contradiction in terms. Isaacson's intuitive understanding of those terms,
and his prodigious appetite for research, combine to make this biography a
prime candidate for the authoritative Franklin of our time.
Joseph J. Ellis is the author of ''Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary
'The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin': A Folksy Aristocrat New York
Times Book Review, 4.8.8 By BARRY GEWEN
THE AMERICANIZATION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN By Gordon S. Wood. Illustrated.
299 pp. The Penguin Press. $25.95.
IT'S Benjamin Franklin's time. Two years ago Edmund S. Morgan gave us a
fine character sketch with ''Benjamin Franklin.'' Then Walter Isaacson's
''Benjamin Franklin: An American Life'' planted itself on the New York
Times best-seller list for a long stay. H. W. Brands has chimed in with
''The First American,'' a more commodious biography than Isaacson's, if a
less fluent one. And now we have Gordon S. Wood's engaging book ''The
Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.''
Wood has some tough acts to follow, but he is no slouch. A skilled writer
with both Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes to his credit, he possesses as
profound a grasp of the early days of the Republic as anyone currently
working. He is the author of two books -- ''The Creation of the American
Republic, 1776-1787'' and ''The Radicalism of the American Revolution'' --
that are essential for understanding the United States from its founding
down to the present.
This study is not a biography, at least not a conventional one. Wood
focuses on Franklin's personal development and constructs his narrative
around various turning points in the life, almost like a bildungsroman. We
learn the choices Franklin made, the conflicts he had to resolve. This is
the most dramatic of the recent Franklin books.
One of Wood's major topics is Franklin's reputation, then and now. A
reader today cannot fail to be astonished by Franklin's remarkable
modernity. Isaacson calls him ''the founding father who winks at us.''
Wood echoes this judgment: ''He seems to be the one we would most like to
spend an evening with.'' Washington was too solemn, Jefferson too lofty,
Hamilton too driven, Madison too lawyerly, Adams too difficult, a royal
pain. With his disdain of powdered wigs and the other formalities of his
very formal age, Franklin comes across as the most recognizably human of
them all, a man for our time. His immediacy compresses centuries. He is
not even Franklin, he's just Ben -- witty, ironic, plain-spoken, shrewd,
congenial, devious, visionary, lusty, magnanimous, hardheaded,
manipulative, brilliant Ben.
Not everyone today would enjoy his company, be seduced by this
consummately seductive man. The politically correct would most likely
hector him if they could. For Franklin was a slaveholder. It's true he
turned against slavery, and ardently so, at the very end of his life, but
he took a long time getting there. He could be a bigot as well. He wrote
nativist diatribes against the large German population in his own colony
of Pennsylvania. In 1751 he argued for excluding everyone from
Pennsylvania except the English; Morgan calls him ''the first spokesman
for a lily-white America.'' Franklin loved the company of women, but he
was no feminist. He treated his wife miserably, and he admonished young
brides to attend to the word ''obey'' in their vows. He worried that
handouts to the poor would encourage laziness, and he was a fervent
supporter of a strong military.
An 18th-century Jesse Helms? Modern right-wingers would probably be even
more uncomfortable with him than left-wingers. Take his religious views.
Franklin was a deist; God, in his opinion, was a distant presence in the
affairs of men. He was no churchgoer. He accepted neither the sacredness
of the Bible nor the divinity of Jesus. His ideas about property rights
were similarly unorthodox. Beyond basic necessities, he said, all property
belonged to ''the public, who by their laws have created it.'' Brands
calls such remarks ''strikingly socialistic.''
What most sets Franklin apart from contemporary conservatives, however, is
his attitude toward that panoply of issues gathered under the heading of
''family values.'' As a young man he consorted with ''low women,'' and
fathered an illegitimate child. In 1745 he wrote a letter to a youthful
friend -- long suppressed -- offering advice on choosing a lover. (Older
women, he declared, were preferable to younger ones.) Franklin was always
an incorrigible flirt. How much actual sex was involved is anybody's
guess, but one incident stands out among the rest. When he was in his 70's
and living in Paris, he became enamored of the captivating 33-year-old
Mme. Anne-Louise Brillon, one of the leading lights of Parisian society.
Even the puritanical John Adams was enchanted by her. She was no less
taken with Franklin, and their vivacious correspondence consisted of a
determined campaign on his part to bed her and her equally stalwart
resistance, based on the customs of the day and what was proper between a
widower and a married woman. Their bantering give-and-take, as quoted by
Brands, constitutes one of the most charming episodes in early American
history and -- since as far as the historians can tell they never did
sleep together -- also one of the most poignant.
Moral zealots of his own era -- Adams, for example, and the Lees of
Virginia -- didn't like him, and our own zealots of both the left and the
right wouldn't like him now. In these overheated, bipolar times, if a
decision had to be made about our currency, it's a safe bet that a
slaveholding lecher would not be gracing our $100 bills. But Franklin was
a hero of moderation throughout his life, and he is a hero for moderates
today. He took the world as he found it, accepted people for what they
were and didn't try to make them over. He had no axes to grind. His code
of conduct began in sociability, with a firm commitment to the practical.
Franklin has been criticized for not being a dreamer. He wasn't; he wanted
to get things done. He was devoted to public service, the public good.
Thus, the library, fire company, insurance company, hospital and
university he founded in Philadelphia; thus, the inventions and scientific
experiments that won him fame on both sides of the Atlantic; and thus, the
magnificent political and diplomatic achievements. Franklin, as Isaacson
points out, was the only person to sign the four major documents
establishing the country: the Declaration of Independence, the treaties
with France and Britain, and the Constitution. Wood calls him ''the
greatest diplomat America has ever had.''
So extraordinary was the multifaceted Franklin that it's all too easy to
sentimentalize him, and here Wood's book can serve as a useful corrective.
Two themes in particular lend themselves to fuzzy effusiveness. The first
is that Franklin was some kind of tribune of the masses, the populist
among the founding fathers. But no less than Thomas Jefferson, Franklin
believed in the idea of a natural aristocracy, and well understood where
he was positioned within that hierarchy.
He could interact enjoyably with anyone, commoners as well as kings, yet
as Morgan observes, he preferred associating with those ''on the same
wavelength'' -- which meant neither commoners nor kings but Hume, Burke,
Condorcet, Boswell, Beaumarchais, Adam Smith. He hated the rabble, feared
mobs. When it came to decision making, he held that wisdom resided with
the wise. ''The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin'' makes clear just
how much of an elitist our folksiest founder was.
The other problematic theme concerns Franklin's ''Americanness.'' He seems
almost a checklist for those national qualities Americans take pride in --
and others despise us for. Yet Wood alerts us to be careful in how we
think about this aspect of his character. For he was the most cosmopolitan
of the founders, at home anywhere. Twenty-five of the last 33 years of his
life were spent abroad, and those years were anything but a hardship for
him. He was wined and dined and celebrated by the Europeans more than he
ever was by his own countrymen. Soon after arriving in London he was
complaining about the provinciality and vulgarity of Americans. In Paris
he was quite simply a superstar, acclaimed as the equal of Voltaire, and
he gave thought to settling permanently in ''the civilest Nation upon
Earth.'' These sentiments did not go unnoticed back home, and Franklin
fell under suspicion of being a foreign agent, first for the British, then
for the French. When he returned to Philadelphia for the last time in
1785, it was in part to clear his name.
So what does it mean to speak of his ''Americanization''? What changed him
from a citizen of the world to a citizen of the United States? As Wood
shows, these aren't easy questions to answer. But it should be said that
in one way Franklin never really did change. He turned against England
because it had become smaller in his mind, oppressive and corrupt, no
longer the center of civilization that he had come to love. Now it was
America that seemed to be civilization's future. The Revolution was not a
conflict over taxation or home rule, not even a dispute over the rights of
Englishmen. For him it represented something universal, a world-historical
event, ''a miracle in human affairs.'' That is, Franklin never stopped
being the urbane cosmopolitan, the ultimate sophisticate. He stayed true
to himself. But by 1776 he had concluded that the only way to remain a
citizen of the world was to become an American.
Barry Gewen is an editor at the Book Review.
Excerpts from 'The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin' By GORDON S. WOOD
BECOMING A GENTLEMAN
Franklin was born in Boston on January 17, 1706 (January 6, 1705, in the
old-style calendar), of very humble origins, origins that always struck
Franklin himself as unusually poor. Franklin's father, Josiah, was a
nonconformist from Northamptonshire who as a young man had immigrated to
the New World and had become a candle and soap maker, one of the lowliest
of the artisan crafts. Josiah fathered a total of seventeen children, ten,
including Benjamin, by his second wife, Abiah Folger, from Nantucket.
Franklin was number fifteen of these seventeen and the youngest son.
In a hierarchical age that favored the firstborn son, Franklin was, as he
ruefully recounted in his Autobiography, "the youngest Son of the youngest
Son for 5 Generations back." In the last year of his life the bitterness
was still there, undisguised by Franklin's usual irony. In a codicil to
his will written in 1789 he observed that most people, having received an
estate from their ancestors, felt obliged to pass on something to their
posterity. "This obligation," he wrote with some emotion, "does not lie on
me, who never inherited a shilling from any ancestor or relation."
Because the young Franklin was unusually precocious ("I do not remember
when I could not read," he recalled), his father initially sent the
eight-year-old boy to grammar school in preparation for the ministry. But
his father soon had second thoughts about the expenses involved in a
college education, and after a year he pulled the boy out of grammar
school and sent him for another year to an ordinary school that simply
taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. These two years of formal
education were all that Franklin was ever to receive. Not that this was
unusual: most boys had little more than this, and almost all girls had no
formal schooling at all. Although most of the Revolutionary leaders were
college graduates-usually being the first in their families to attend
college-some, including Washington, Robert Morris, Patrick Henry,
Nathanael Greene, and Thomas Paine, had not much more formal schooling
than Franklin. Apprenticeship in a trade or skill was still the principal
means by which most young men prepared for the world.
Franklin's father chose that route of apprenticeship for his son and began
training Franklin to be a candle and soap maker. But since cutting wicks
and smelling tallow made Franklin very unhappy, his father finally agreed
that the printing trade might better suit the boy's "Bookish Inclination."
Printing, after all, was the most cerebral of the crafts, requiring the
ability to read, spell, and write. Nevertheless, it still involved heavy
manual labor and was a grubby, messy, and physically demanding job,
without much prestige.
In fact, printing had little more respectability than soap and candle
making. It was in such "wretched Disrepute" that, as one
eighteenth-century New York printer remarked, no family "of Substance
would ever put their Sons to such an Art," and, as a consequence, masters
were "obliged to take of the lowest People" for apprentices. But Franklin
fit the trade. Not only was young Franklin bookish, but he was also nearly
six feet tall and strong with broad shoulders-ideally suited for the
difficult tasks of printing. His father thus placed him under the care of
an older son, James, who in 1717 had returned from England to set himself
up as a printer in Boston. When James saw what his erudite youngest
brother could do with words and type, he signed up the twelve-year-old boy
to an unusually long apprenticeship of nine years.
That boy, as Franklin later recalled in his Autobiography, was "extremely
ambitious" to become a "tolerable English Writer." Although literacy was
relatively high in New England at this time-perhaps 75 percent of males in
Boston could read and write and the percentage was rapidly growing-books
were scarce and valuable, and few people read books the way Franklin did.
He read everything he could get his hands on, including John Bunyan's
Pilgrim's Progress, Plutarch's Lives, Daniel Defoe's Essay on Projects,
the "do good" essays of the prominent Boston Puritan divine Cotton Mather,
and more books of "polemic Divinity" than Franklin wanted to remember. He
even befriended the apprentices of booksellers in order to gain access to
more books. One of these apprentices allowed him secretly to borrow his
master's books to read after work. "Often," Franklin recalled, "I sat up
in my Room reading the greatest Part of the Night, when the Book was
borrow'd in the Evening & to be return'd early in the Morning lest it
should be miss'd or wanted." He tried his hand at writing poetry and other
things but was discouraged with the poor quality of his attempts. He
discovered a volume of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele's Spectator
papers and saw in it a tool for self-improvement. He read the papers over
and over again and copied and recopied them and tried to recapitulate them
from memory. He turned them into poetry and then back again into prose. He
took notes on the Spectator essays, jumbled the notes, and then attempted
to reconstruct the essays in order to understand the way Addison and
Steele had organized them. All this painstaking effort was designed to
improve and polish his writing, and it succeeded; "prose Writing" became,
as Franklin recalled in his Autobiography, "of great Use to me in the
Course of my Life, and was a principal Means of my Advancement." In fact,
writing competently was such a rare skill that anyone who could do it well
immediately acquired importance. All the Founders, including Washington,
first gained their reputations by something they wrote.
In 1721 Franklin's brother, after being the printer for another person's
newspaper, decided to establish his own paper, the New England Courant. It
was only the fourth newspaper in Boston; the first, published in 1690, had
been closed down by the Massachusetts government after only one issue. The
second, the Boston News-Letter was founded in 1704; it became the first
continuously published newspaper not only in Boston but in all of the
North American colonies. The next Boston paper, begun in 1719 and printed
by James Franklin for the owner, was the Boston Gazette. These early
newspapers were small, simple, and bland affairs, two to four pages
published weekly and containing mostly reprints of old European news, ship
sailings, and various advertisements, together with notices of deaths,
political appointments, court actions, fires, piracies, and such matters.
Although the papers were expensive and numbered only in the hundreds of
copies, they often passed from hand to hand and could reach beneath the
topmost ranks of the city's population of twelve thousand, including even
into the ranks of artisans and other "middling sorts."
These early papers were labeled "published by authority." Remaining on the
good side of government was not only wise politically, it was wise
economically. Most colonial printers in the eighteenth century could not
have survived without government printing contracts of one sort or
another. Hence most sought to avoid controversy and to remain neutral in
politics. They tried to exclude from their papers anything that smacked of
libel or personal abuse. Such material was risky. Much safer were the
columns of dull but innocuous foreign news that they used to fill their
papers, much to Franklin's later annoyance. It is hard to know what
colonial readers made of the first news item printed in the newly created
South Carolina Gazette of 1732: "We learn from Caminica, that the Cossacks
continue to make inroads onto polish Ukrania."
James Franklin did not behave as most colonial printers did. When he
decided to start his own paper, he was definitely not publishing it by
authority. In fact, the New England Courant began by attacking the Boston
establishment, in particular the program of inoculating people for
smallpox that was being promoted by the Puritan ministers Cotton Mather
and his father. When this inoculation debate died down, the paper turned
to satirizing other subjects of Boston interest, including pretended
learning and religious hypocrisy, some of which provoked the Mathers into
replies. Eager to try his own hand at satire, young Benjamin in 1722
submitted some essays to his brother's newspaper under the name of Silence
Dogood, a play on Cotton Mather's Essays to Do Good, the name usually
given to the minister's Bonifacius, published in 1710. For a
sixteen-year-old boy to assume the persona of a middle-aged woman was a
daunting challenge, and young Franklin took "exquisite Pleasure" in
fooling his brother and others into thinking that only "Men of some
Character among us for Learning and Ingenuity" could have written the
These Silence Dogood essays lampooned everything from funeral eulogies to
"that famous Seminary of Learning," Harvard College. Although Franklin's
satire was generally and shrewdly genial, there was often a bite to it and
a good deal of social resentment behind it, especially when it came to his
making fun of Harvard. Most of the students who attended "this famous
Place," he wrote, "were little better than Dunces and Blockheads." This
was not surprising, since the main qualification for entry, he said, was
having money. Once admitted, the students "learn little more than how to
carry themselves handsomely, and enter a Room genteely, (which might as
well be acquire'd at a Dancing-School,) and from whence they return, after
Abundance of Trouble and Charge, as great Blockheads as ever, only more
proud and self-conceited." One can already sense an underlying anger in
this precocious and rebellious teenager, an anger with those who claimed
an undeserved social superiority that would become an important spur to
When Franklin's brother found out who the author of the Silence Dogood
pieces was, he was not happy, "as he thought, probably with reason," that
all the praise the essays were receiving tended to make the young teenager
"too vain." Franklin, as he admitted, was probably "too saucy and
provoking" to his brother, and the two brothers began squabbling. James
was only nine years older than his youngest brother, but he nonetheless
"considered himself as my Master & me as his Apprentice." Consequently, as
master he "expected the same Services from me as he would from another;
while I thought he demean'd me too much in some he requir'd of me, who
from a Brother expected more Indulgence."
Since the fraternal relationship did not fit the extreme hierarchical
relationship of master and apprentice, the situation became impossible,
especially when James began exercising his master's prerogative of beating
Indentured apprentices were under severe contractual obligations in the
eighteenth century and were part of the large unfree population that
existed in all the colonies. In essence they belonged to their masters:
their contracts were inheritable, and they could not marry, play cards or
gamble, attend taverns, or leave their masters' premises day or night
without permission. With such restraints it is understandable that
Franklin was "continually wishing for some Opportunity" to shorten or
break his apprenticeship.
In 1723 that opportunity came when the Massachusetts government-like all
governments in that pre-modern age, acutely sensitive to libels and any
suggestion of disrespect-finally found sufficient grounds to forbid James
to publish his paper. James sought to evade the restriction by publishing
the paper under Benjamin's name. But it would not do to have a mere
apprentice as editor of the paper, and James had to return the old
indenture of apprenticeship to his brother. Although James drew up a new
and secret contract for the remainder of the term of apprenticeship,
Franklin realized his brother would not dare to reveal what he had done,
and he thus took "Advantage" of the situation "to assert my Freedom."
His situation with his brother had become intolerable, and his own
standing in the Puritan-dominated community of Boston was little better.
Since Franklin had become "a little obnoxious to the governing Party" and
"my indiscreet Disputations about Religion began to make me pointed at
with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist," he determined to
leave Boston. But because he still had some years left of his
apprenticeship and his father opposed his leaving, he had to leave
secretly. With a bit of money and a few belongings, the headstrong and
defiant seventeen-year-old boarded a ship and fled the city, a move that
was much more common in the mobile eighteenth-century Atlantic world than
we might imagine. Thus Franklin began the career that would lead him "from
the Poverty & Obscurity in which I was born & bred, to a State of
Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World."
Franklin arrived in the Quaker city renowned for its religious freedom in
1723, hungry, tired, dirty, and bedraggled in his "Working Dress," his
"Pockets stuffed out with Shirts and Stockings," with only a Dutch dollar
and copper shilling to his name. He bought three rolls, and "with a Roll
under each Arm, and eating the other," he wandered around Market,
Chestnut, and Walnut Streets, and in his own eyes, and the eyes of his
future wife, Deborah Read, who watched him from her doorway, made "a most
awkward ridiculous Appearance." He finally stumbled into a Quaker
meetinghouse on Second Street, and "hearing nothing said," promptly "fell
fast asleep, and continu'd so till the Meeting broke up, when one was kind
enough to wake me."
Franklin tells us in his Autobiography that he offers us such a
"particular"-and unforgettable-description of his "first Entry" into the
city of Philadelphia so "that you may in your Mind compare such unlikely
Beginnings with the Figure I have since made there." Although he tried in
his Autobiography to play down and mock his achievements, Franklin was
nothing if not proud of his extraordinary rise. He always knew that it was
the enormous gap between his very obscure beginnings and his later
worldwide eminence that gave his story its heroic appeal.
Philadelphia in the 1720s numbered about six thousand people, but it was
growing rapidly and would soon surpass the much older city of Boston. The
city, and the colony of Pennsylvania, had begun in the late seventeenth
century as William Penn's "Holy Experiment" for poor persecuted members of
the Society of Friends. But by the time Franklin arrived, many of the
Quaker families, such as the Norrises, Shippens, Dickinsons, and
Pembertons, had prospered, and this emerging Quaker aristocracy had come
to dominate the mercantile affairs and politics of the colony.
Sunday Book Review > 'A Great Improvisation': Our Man in Paris
By WALTER ISAACSON
A GREAT IMPROVISATION Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. By Stacy
Schiff. Illustrated. 489 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $30.
IN 1776, after he had helped edit Thomas Jefferson's draft of the
Declaration of Independence, the 70-year-old Benjamin Franklin was sent on
a wartime Atlantic crossing deemed necessary to make that document a
reality. America had to get France on its side in the Revolution, and,
even back then, France was a bit of a handful.
Franklin was an ideal choice for the mission, as Stacy Schiff shows in
this meticulously researched and judicious account of his eight years as a
diplomatic dazzler and charmer in Paris. ''He happened to do a fine
imitation of a French courtier,'' she writes, showing her astute feel for
both Franklin and 18th-century court life at Versailles. ''He knew better
than to confuse straightforwardness with candor; he was honest, but not
too honest, which qualifies in France as a failure of imagination.'' What
made Franklin such a great diplomat was that he could quote Cervantes's
maxim about honesty being the best policy without trying to apply it in
the Hall of Mirrors, where a more oblique approach had its advantages. He
had a ''majestic suppleness'' that was rare, especially in a man of his
Today's stewards of America's foreign policy could learn much from the
wily and seductive Franklin. He was as adroit as a Richelieu or Metternich
at the practice of balance-of-power realism; he wrote memos to the French
foreign minister Vergennes that showed a fine feel for the national
interests of France and its Bourbon-pact allies; and he played the French
off against the English envoys who came secretly suitoring for a
back-channel truce. But he also wove in the idealism that was to make
America's worldview exceptional both then and now; he realized that the
appeal of the values of democracy and an attention to winning hearts and
minds through public diplomacy would be sources of the new nation's global
influence as much as its military might.
After a year of playing both seductive and coy, Franklin was able to
negotiate a set of treaties with France that would, so the signers
declared, bond the countries in perpetuity. One French participant
expressed the hope that the Americans ''would not inherit the pretensions
and the greedy and bold character of their mother country, which had made
itself detested.'' As a result of the arrangements made by Franklin, the
French supplied most of America's guns and nearly all of its gunpowder,
and had almost as many troops at the decisive battle of Yorktown as the
Schiff scrupulously researches the details of Franklin's mission and
skillfully spices up the tale with the colorful spies, stock manipulators,
war profiteers and double-dealers who swarmed around him. Most delightful
are the British spy Paul Wentworth, so graceful even as he is
outmaneuvered by Franklin, and the flamboyant playwright and secret agent
Beaumarchais (''The Barber of Seville'' and ''The Marriage of Figaro''),
so eager to capitalize on the news of the American victory at Saratoga
that he was injured when his carriage overturned while speeding with a
banker from Franklin's home to central Paris. Least delightful is the
priggish and petulant John Adams, ''a man to whom virtue and unpopularity
were synonymous'' and whom Schiff merrily tries to knock from the pedestal
upon which he was placed by David McCullough.
Schiff is somewhat less successful at capturing the sweep and excitement
of Franklin's diplomatic achievements. She never offers up much of a
theory of how he enticed the French into an alliance, what role the
military victory at Saratoga played, how he really felt about the British,
what games he was playing when he juggled two rival British envoys vying
to be his interlocutor in the final peace talks or why he agreed with his
fellow commissioners to negotiate that treaty with Britain behind the
backs of the French. Nor does Schiff convey the brilliance of his writing
and the exuberance of his flirtations with his two mistresses. Franklin,
oddly enough, sometimes comes across as rather distant and lifeless, which
is a shame.
In her two previous biographical studies -- ''Véra: (Mrs. Vladimir
Nabokov)'' and ''Saint-Exupery'' -- Schiff displayed her mastery as a
literary stylist. This time, she occasionally lapses into clichés (in one
section Franklin ''dragged his feet'' and then ''led Vergennes down the
primrose path'' from which position he ''backed them'' -- the Spaniards --
''into a corner''), and some of her phrases read as if she wrote them
first in period French (''Franklin paid a call of which he could not have
overestimated the symbolic value''). Nevertheless, her research is so
convincing and her feel for the subject so profound that ''A Great
Improvisation'' becomes both an enjoyable narrative and the most important
recent addition to original Franklin scholarship.
When he embarked on his final voyage back home to America after his
triumphant years in France, Franklin made a short stop in England, at
Southampton, where he met with his illegitimate and prodigal son, William,
who had remained loyal to the British crown. There William's own
illegitimate son, Temple, who had sided with and worked for his
grandfather Benjamin, tried to effect a reconciliation. Alas, the reunion
was cold and bitter. It was a vivid reminder of how personality and
character and emotion and diplomacy can become dramatically interwoven.
That was one of the great themes of Franklin's life, one of the many that
Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, is the author of
''Benjamin Franklin: An American Life'' and ''Kissinger: A Biography.'' He
is writing a biography of Albert Einstein.
Reviewed by Isabelle de Courtivron Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page BW04
A GREAT IMPROVISATION: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America
By Stacy Schiff. Henry Holt. 489 pp. $30
At the beginning of his February trip to Europe, President Bush quipped
that he hoped for a reception similar to the one Benjamin Franklin
received two centuries earlier, when he "arrived on this continent to
great acclaim." (Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told him he "should
be a realist.") This was tongue in cheek, of course -- an attempt to
smooth over the "Punish France!" pronouncements from the heated debate
over Iraq and subsequent Francophobic actions such as renaming fries and
dumping Beaujolais. But Bush probably did not realize what price Franklin
had actually paid for retaining his extraordinary popularity in France and
for surmounting political and personal obstacles on both sides of the
Atlantic. The story of the eight and a half years he spent in Paris,
persuading the French to support the fledgling American army in concrete
as well as symbolic ways, is the subject of Stacy Schiff's engaging new
A Great Improvisation has many levels. It is a factual, historical and
meticulously detailed recounting of the travails, vexations, negotiations,
complexities and setbacks of the political and diplomatic maneuvers that
ultimately led France to support the young American cause. It is also an
enlightening discussion of the vexed and complex beginnings of the
transatlantic alliance. Finally, it is an entertaining story, bringing
alive a cast of colorful characters, strange plot twists and bizarre
anecdotes, which sometimes reads like a movie script replete with
intrigues, ultimatums, cabals, swindles and vendettas.
In 1776, the 70-year-old Franklin landed in France, sent by a Congress
that had declared independence without the means to achieve it. The very
idea of foreign help was unpalatable to some in Congress and considered
suspect by many even after the court of young Louis XVI had come through.
But these widely diverging opinions did not deter Franklin from his
unwavering faith in the American Revolution and his steady conviction that
every measure should be taken to sustain the new republic and win the war
against the British. Franklin had the daunting task of advertising
rebellion in an absolute monarchy; he did so doggedly, all the while
underplaying what was often a desperate military situation.
When he arrived in France, he was already well known and widely respected
as a statesman, philosopher and scientist. But what allowed him to succeed
when all other emissaries charged with the same task had fallen into the
deep Franco-American political and cultural divide? Schiff attributes it
in large part to his ability to marshal "a great improvisation." She
points to Franklin's laissez-faire attitude, his ability to be logical
without being encumbered by exaggerated honesty, his voluble, genial and
ruthless approach, and his calculated innocence. He was also a hit with
the French because he knew how to adapt to the codes of the European
nobility -- not to mention possessing a heroic and seemingly unlimited
patience for people's exasperating foibles, French, British and Americans
alike. Indeed, as thorny as Franklin's encounters with various French
characters may have been, they seem tame next to his relations with
members of his own mission and with his compatriots -- from the early
tension between the original U.S. emissaries to France, William Lee and
Silas Deane (who fought not only over strategy but over the colors of the
American army uniforms), all the way to the uncompromising John Adams (who
considered every laurel bestowed upon Franklin a personal affront).
Marshaling so much original information -- drawn from diplomatic archives,
family papers, spy reports and the archives of the French foreign service
-- could have made for a tedious read were it not for Schiff's
storytelling skills. The author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of
Vera Nabokov, Schiff introduces us to a cast of unique characters, whom
she captures in a few vivid and incisive traits. They range from
Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the flamboyant, irrepressible,
swashbuckling secret agent and playwright who became an important early
arms dealer; to the recipient of those weapons, the dashing young marquis
de Lafayette, who sailed to America against the king's order, wracked with
violent seasickness, speaking not a word of English and leaving behind a
pregnant wife; to the excitable, stubborn Viscount Stormont, the British
ambassador to Versailles; and to the chevalier d'Eon, a cross-dressing
dragoon officer who became a notable supporter of the young republic's
Schiff does not forget the ladies with whom Franklin flirted so copiously,
in person and by correspondence: for instance, the thirtysomething,
married Anne-Louise Brillon de Jouy, who had frail nerves, called him Papa
and eventually promised to become his wife, but only in the afterlife, or
Anne-Catherine Helvétius, the philosopher's widow, a hostess with a
powerful salon who was at the "center of Franklin's social life" in
France. They figure prominently in Schiff's narrative, not simply because
of Franklin's fraught infatuations with several of them but also because,
in 18th-century French society, their salons were the places where
important people could meet and network. Completing this tableau are
members of the somewhat dysfunctional Franklin family: his illegitimate
son William, a Loyalist leader in London with whom he was on terrible
terms, and William's own illegitimate son, Temple, who worked for his
grandfather in Paris and whose taste for Europe left him incapable of
readapting to America. "For his service abroad," Schiff wryly notes,
Franklin "wound up with an English son and a French grandson."
Schiff's allusions to the French-American misunderstandings and mutual
suspicion will regale readers. Some of these lead to hilarious anecdotes;
for example, Bostonians welcomed the French squadron in 1778 with a dinner
of cooked green Massachusetts frogs. The French militiamen found American
coffee undrinkable, the food inedible, the people "overly familiar and
bizarrely peripatetic" and the women graceless and unshapely; the
Americans felt that the French talked too fast and all at the same time
without really saying much, opined on subjects they knew nothing about and
considered that business consisted primarily of ceremony and pleasure.
Despite the undeniable impact on U.S.-French relations of two tumultuous
centuries, A Great Improvisation reminds us that profound cultural
differences between the two societies have not changed all that much --
and thus remain at the root of their conflicting visions of the world.
Plus ça change . . . o
Isabelle de Courtivron is Friedlaender Professor of the Humanities at MIT
and the editor of "Lives in Translation: Bilingual Writers on Identity and
Forget the Founding Fathers New York Times Book Review, 5.6.5
By BARRY GEWEN
THE founding fathers were paranoid hypocrites and ungrateful malcontents.
What was their cherished Declaration of Independence but empty political
posturing? They groaned about the burden of taxation, but it was the
English who were shouldering the real burden, paying taxes on everything
from property to beer, from soap to candles, tobacco, paper, leather and
beeswax. The notorious tea tax, which had so inflamed the people of
Massachusetts, was only one-fourth of what the English paid at home; even
Benjamin Franklin labeled the Boston Tea Party an act of piracy.
Meanwhile, smugglers, with the full connivance of the colonists, were
getting rich at the expense of honest tax-paying citizens. The recent
French and Indian War had doubled Britain's national debt, but the
Americans, who were the most immediate beneficiaries, were refusing to
contribute their fair share.
The revolutionaries complained about a lack of representation in
Parliament, but in this they were no different from the majority of
Englishmen. What was more, the God-given or nature-given rights they
claimed for themselves included the right to hold Africans in bondage.
Edward Gibbon, who knew something about the ups and downs of history,
opposed the rebels from the House of Commons. Samuel Johnson called them
''a race of convicts'' who ''ought to be thankful for any thing we allow
them short of hanging.''
Observed from across the Atlantic, the story of the Revolution looks very
different from the one every American child grows up with. To see that
story through British eyes, as Stanley Weintraub's ''Iron Tears: America's
Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire: 1775-1783'' enables us to do, is
to see an all-too-familiar tale reinvigorated. Weintraub reminds us that
justice did not necessarily reside with the rebels, that the past can
always be viewed from multiple perspectives. And he confronts us with the
fact that an American triumph was anything but inevitable. History of
course belongs to the victors. If Britain's generals had been more
enterprising, if the French had failed to supply vital military and
financial assistance, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander
Hamilton and the rest would be known to us not as political and
philosophical giants but as reckless (and hanged) losers, supporting
players in a single act of Britain's imperial drama. We would all be
Canadians now, with lower prescription drug costs and an inordinate
fondness for winter sports.
But Weintraub's book does more than add a fresh dimension to a tired
subject. By giving the war a genuinely international flavor, it points the
way to a new understanding of American history. Instead of looking out at
the rest of the world from an American perspective, it rises above
national boundaries to place the past in a global context. This is a
significant undertaking. At a time when the role of the United States in
the world has never been more dominant, or more vulnerable, it is
crucially important for us to see how the United States fits into the
jigsaw of international relations. Weintraub indicates how American
history may come to be written in the future.
A globalized history of the United States would be only the latest twist
in a constantly changing narrative. Broadly speaking, since the end of
World War II there have been three major schools of American history; each
reflected and served the mood of the country at a particular time. In the
1940's and 50's, that mood was triumphal. As Frances FitzGerald explains
in ''America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the 20th Century,'' the
United States was routinely presented in those years as ''perfect: the
greatest nation in the world, and the embodiment of democracy, freedom and
technological progress.'' The outside world may have been intruding on the
slumbering nation through the cold war, the United Nations, NATO and the
rise of Communist China, but the textbooks' prevailing narrative remained
resolutely provincial. ''The United States had been a kind of Salvation
Army to the rest of the world,'' the books taught. ''Throughout history,
it had done little but dispense benefits to poor, ignorant and diseased
countries. . . . American motives were always altruistic.''
The histories of that time, FitzGerald says, were ''seamless,'' a word
that applied not only to schoolbooks but also to the work of the period's
most sophisticated scholars and writers, men like Richard Hofstadter and
Louis Hartz. Reacting against the challenge of totalitarianism, they went
looking for consensus or, in Hofstadter's phrase, ''the central faith'' of
America, and they found it in the national commitment to bourgeois
individualism and egalitarianism. Americans clustered around a democratic,
capitalist middle. Uniquely among major nations, the United States had
avoided serious ideological conflict and political extremes; even its
radicals and dissenters adhered to what Hofstadter called the ''Whiggish
center'' and Hartz termed ''the liberal tradition.'' Arthur M. Schlesinger
Jr. wrote about ''the vital center.'' Daniel Bell spoke of ''the end of
Because they emphasized unity at the expense of division and dissent --
Hartz referred to ''the shadow world'' of American social conflict --
these consensus historians later were criticized for being conservative
and complacent. There is some truth to this charge, but only some. As a
group, they were reformers, even liberal Democrats, but their liberalism
was pragmatic and incremental. Mindful of the leftist extremism of the
1930's, they looked upon idealism as something to be distrusted; grand
visions, they had come to understand, could do grand damage. Taken too
far, this viewpoint could lead to a defense of the status quo, or at least
to a preference for the way things were to the way visionaries said they
could be. Down that road, neoconservatism beckoned. Hofstadter, for one,
was discomforted by some of his critics, and admitted to having ''serious
misgivings of my own about what is known as consensus history.'' It had
never been his purpose, he explained, to deny the very real conflicts that
existed within the framework he and others were attempting to outline.
Hofstadter acknowledged that his writing ''had its sources in the Marxism
of the 1930's,'' and an alert reader could detect a residual Marxism, or
at least an old-fashioned radicalism, in some of his comments in ''The
American Political Tradition.'' Though the book appeared in the late
1940's, at the onset of one of the greatest economic booms in American
history, Hofstadter was still complaining about ''bigness and corporate
monopoly,'' misguidedly declaring that ''competition and opportunity have
gone into decline.'' Similarly, in ''The Liberal Tradition in America,''
Hartz brilliantly but, it seemed, ruefully, analyzed why socialism had
failed to take root in the United States.
However much these thinkers had been disappointed by Marxism, they were
hardly ready to embrace straightforward majoritarian democracy. Indeed,
with the exception of Henry Adams, there has probably never been a
historian more suspicious of ''the people'' than Richard Hofstadter. For
him vox populi conjured up images of racism, xenophobia, paranoia,
anti-intellectualism. The more congenial Hartz described Americans as
possessing ''a vast and almost charming innocence of mind''; his hope was
that the postwar encounter with the rest of the world would awaken his
countrymen from their sheltered, basically oafish naivete.
But if the consensus historians were not Marxists and not majoritarian
democrats, what, during the cold war era, could they be? What other choice
was there? The answer is that they were ironists who stood beyond
political debate, beyond their own narratives. Hartz urged scholars to get
''outside the national experience''; ''instead of recapturing our past, we
have got to transcend it,'' he said. One became an anthropologist of one's
own society. How better to understand the national character, what made
America America? Yet the outsider approach had real limitations, as became
apparent once the tranquil 50's turned into the tumultuous 60's. The
consensus historian, Hartz wrote, ''finds national weaknesses and he can
offer no absolute assurance on the basis of the past that they will be
remedied. He tends to criticize and then shrug his shoulders.'' This
preference for the descriptive over the prescriptive, with its mix of
resignation and skepticism, its simultaneous enjoyment and rejection of
the spectacle of American life, was at bottom ''aesthetic.'' In
retrospect, one can even begin to see certain links between the consensus
generation's aesthetic irony and the distancing attitude Susan Sontag
described in her 1964 essay, ''Notes on Camp.''
In any event, the work of these historians was drastically undermined by
the upheavals of the 60's and early 70's -- the Kennedy assassination and
the other political murders, the Vietnam War, the urban riots, the student
revolts, Watergate and the kulturkampf of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. As
division and conflict consumed the country, the emphasis on American unity
seemed misguided. And the ironic stance itself looked irresponsible. The
times demanded not distance but engagement, not anthropologists but
activists, not a shrug but a clenched fist. Everyone was being forced to
make choices, and those choices presented themselves with an almost
melodramatic starkness, especially on the campuses that were the homes of
the consensus historians. It was the blacks against the bigots, the doves
against the hawks, the Beatles against Rodgers and Hammerstein. For
historians, too, the choice was easy: for the neglected minorities and
against the dominant dead white males.
As postwar seamlessness faded in the 1960's, a school of multicultural
historians emerged to take the place of the consensus historians. This
school has been subjected to a lot of criticism of late, but in fact it
brought forth a golden age of social history. Blacks, American Indians,
immigrants, women and gays had been ignored in the national narrative, or,
more precisely, treated as passive objects rather than active subjects.
The Civil War may have been fought over slavery, but the slaves were
rarely heard from. Who knew anything about the Indians at Custer's Last
Stand? The immigrants' story was told not through their own cultures but
through their assimilation into the mainstream. But now, the neglected and
powerless were gaining their authentic voices.
New studies increased our knowledge, enlarging and transforming the
picture of America, even when the multiculturalists worked in very
restricted areas. Judith A. Carney's ''Black Rice: The African Origins of
Rice Cultivation in the Americas,'' for example, describes how the South
Carolina rice industry was built not only on slave labor but on the
agricultural and technological knowledge brought over by the Africans. The
book has not found many readers outside the academy, but it nonetheless
changes our understanding of the black contribution to American life.
At its best, multiculturalism illuminated the niches and byways of
American history. It investigated smaller and smaller subjects in greater
and greater detail: gays in the military during World War II, black
laundresses in the postbellum South. But this specialization created a
problem of its own. In 1994, when the Journal of American History asked
historians about the state of their profession, they bemoaned its
''narrowness,'' its ''divorce from the public.'' The editor of the journal
wrote that ''dazzling people with the unfamiliar and erudite'' had become
''more highly prized than telling a good story or distilling wisdom.''
Yet what story, exactly, did the multiculturalists want to tell? Could all
those detailed local and ethnic studies be synthesized into a grand
narrative? Unfortunately, the answer was yes. There was a unifying vision,
but it was simplistic. Since the victims and losers were good, it followed
that the winners were bad. From the point of view of downtrodden blacks,
America was racist; from the point of view of oppressed workers, it was
exploitative; from the point of view of conquered Hispanics and Indians,
it was imperialistic. There was much to condemn in American history,
little or nothing to praise. Perhaps it was inevitable that
multiculturalism curdled into political correctness.
Exhibit A, Howard Zinn's ''People's History of the United States,'' has
sold more than a million copies. From the start, Zinn declared that his
perspective was that of the underdog. In ''a world of victims and
executioners, it is the job of thinking people . . . not to be on the side
of the executioners.'' Whereas the Europeans who arrived in the New World
were genocidal predators, the Indians who were already there believed in
sharing and hospitality (never mind the profound cultural differences that
existed among them), and raped Africa was a continent overflowing with
kindness and communalism (never mind the profound cultural differences
that existed there). American history was a story of cruel domination by
the wealthy and privileged. The founding fathers ''created the most
effective system of national control devised in modern times,'' Zinn
stated. The Civil War was a conflict of elites, and World War II was
fought not to stop fascism but to extend America's empire. The United
States and the Soviet Union both sought to control their oppressed
populations, ''each country with its own techniques.'' The Vietnam War was
a clash between organized modern technology and organized human beings,
''and the human beings won.'' We have traveled a long way from the
sophisticated ironies of the consensus historians.
A reaction against distortions and exaggerations of this kind was sure to
come. Battered by political correctness, basking in Reaganesque optimism
and victory in the cold war, the country in the 1980's and 90's was ready
for a reaffirmation of its fundamental values. After all, democracy was
spreading around the world and history itself (treated as a conflict of
ideologies) was declared at an end. One of the first historians to take
heart from the cold war's conclusion and to see the value of re-examining
the formative years of the republic was the early-American scholar Joseph
J. Ellis. In ''Founding Brothers'' he wrote: ''all alternative forms of
political organization appear to be fighting a futile rearguard action
against the liberal institutions and ideas first established in the United
Ellis was a major figure in the new school of founding fathers historians
that emerged in the 1990's. But as an academic, he was exceptional. Most
were amateur and freelance historians, since the universities had become
hostile to the kind of ''great man'' history they were interested in
doing. A National Review editor, Richard Brookhiser, taking Plutarch as
his model, explained that his goal was to write ''moral biography,'' a
phrase unlikely to endear him to postmodernist academics; in rapid
succession he produced brief, deft studies of Washington, Hamilton and the
Adams family. Ellis, the biographer of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and
George Washington, saw himself engaged in retro battle against his own
profession, and observed that his work was ''a polite argument against the
scholarly grain, based on a set of presumptions that are so disarmingly
old-fashioned that they might begin to seem novel in the current
climate.'' George Washington, Ellis joked, was ''the deadest, whitest male
in American history.''
But if the academy was hostile to these books, the larger world was not.
The volumes by Brookhiser and Ellis, not to mention works by David
McCullough, Ron Chernow and Walter Isaacson, were widely praised. Some won
National Book Awards and Pulitzer Prizes. And in sharp contrast to the
restricted monographs of the multiculturalists, they sold by the
truckload. Here was genuinely popular history, written with a public
purpose and designed to capture a large audience. Ellis's ''Founding
Brothers'' was a best seller in hardback for almost a year, and a best
seller in paperback for more than a year. Isaacson's ''Benjamin Franklin''
spent 26 weeks on the best-seller list; McCullough's ''John Adams''
entered the list at No.1, staying there for 13 weeks, rivaling for a while
the popularity of novels by the likes of John Grisham and Danielle Steel.
Chernow's ''Alexander Hamilton'' and Ellis's ''His Excellency: George
Washington'' both made the best-seller list last year.
And yet there are reasons to believe the popularity of the school is
peaking. For one thing, it is running out of founding fathers. The only
major figure still awaiting his Chernow or McCullough is the thoughtful
but unexciting James Madison. No doubt the principal author of the
Constitution will have his day, but the founding fathers school is facing
the choice of reaching down into the second ranks, or going over ground
already covered by others. Brookhiser's most recent biography was of the
less-than-great Gouverneur Morris, whom he teasingly describes as ''the
rake who wrote the Constitution.'' Meanwhile, another formidable biography
of Adams has just come out, and Benjamin Franklin has been turned into an
industry unto himself, the subject of an apparently endless flood of
books. There's always room for different interpretations, but the bigger
picture is in the process of being lost. A school that arose in reaction
to the excesses of the multiculturalists has started feeding on itself.
Most important, however, 9/11 has changed the way Americans relate to
their past. The war on terror, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the
apparently insoluble problem of nuclear proliferation and the ominous but
real potential for a ''clash of civilizations'' -- all these are
compelling us to view history in a new way, to shed the America-centered
perspective of the founding fathers school and look at the American past
as a single stream in a larger global current. Stanley Weintraub will
never equal the best of the founding fathers authors in the felicity of
his prose, and ''Iron Tears'' is unlikely to reach far beyond the
campuses. But by embedding the American Revolution in British history, by
internationalizing it, his book speaks more directly to the needs of our
time than do biographies of Adams and Hamilton.
Weintraub is hardly alone. Another book that gains immediacy by giving a
global spin to an old subject is Alonzo L. Hamby's ''For the Survival of
Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s.'' The New
Deal is as overdiscussed as the Revolution, yet by internationalizing it,
Hamby is able to raise provocative, revealing questions, even disturbing
ones. The Great Depression, he points out, was a crisis that ''begged for
international solutions.'' The Western governments, however, pursued
beggar-thy-neighbor policies, including protective tariffs and competitive
currency devaluations, that ''frequently made things worse.'' And the
United States, he says, was the worst offender of all, ''the most
isolationist of the major world powers.'' Roosevelt was an economic
nationalist who mistakenly treated his country as a self-contained unit,
even actively sabotaging the feeble efforts at international cooperation.
Whatever economic successes he had domestically -- and Hamby, following
other recent historians, shows that those successes were modest indeed --
his actions contributed to the nation-against-nation, Hobbesian atmosphere
of the world arena. Hamby does not go so far as to blame Roosevelt for
Hitler's growing strength in the mid-1930's, but it would not be difficult
to take his argument in that direction. Roosevelt was an ''impressive''
figure, Hamby writes. But from a global perspective, the New Deal record
was ''hardly impressive.''
AS if to signal to historians the kind of reassessment that needs to be
done, the National Endowment for the Humanities will sponsor a four-week
institute at the Library of Congress later this month on ''Rethinking
America in Global Perspective.'' And one group of professional historians
has already begun submerging the United States within a broader identity.
The growing field of ''Atlantic history,'' connecting Europe, Africa and
the Americas through economics, demography and politics, has become a
recognized academic specialty, taught not only in the United States but
also in Britain and Germany. It is generating books, conferences, prizes
and, of course, a Web site. No less a figure than the eminent Harvard
historian Bernard Bailyn has devoted his most recent book to this ''very
large subject'' that is ''now coming into focus.'' Bailyn writes that
Atlantic history is ''peculiarly relevant for understanding the present.''
It may be that for general readers trying to understand the present (as
opposed to scholars), Atlantic history goes too far in dissolving the
United States into a blurry, ill-defined transoceanic entity -- the might
and power of the nation are not about to disappear, nor is the threat
posed by its enemies. But because the post-9/11 globalization of American
history is really just now taking shape, there is sufficient flexibility
at the moment to accommodate a wide range of approaches. Three recent
books, for example, offer starkly contrasting visions of America's past
and, correspondingly, of its present world role. They are of varying
quality but in their different approaches, they point to the kind of
intellectual debates we can expect in the future from historians who speak
to our current condition.
In ''A Patriot's History of the United States,'' Larry Schweikart, a
professor of history at the University of Dayton, and Michael Allen, a
professor of history at the University of Washington, Tacoma,
self-consciously return to 50's triumphalism, though with a very different
purpose from that of the consensus historians. Not interested in irony or
in standing outside of history, they are full-blooded participants,
self-assured and robust moralists, who argue that the United States is a
uniquely virtuous country, with a global mission to spread American values
around the world. ''An honest evaluation of the history of the United
States,'' they declare, ''must begin and end with the recognition that,
compared to any other nation, America's past is a bright and shining
light. America was, and is, the city on the hill, the fountain of hope,
the beacon of liberty.'' Theirs is a frankly nationalistic -- often
blatantly partisan -- text in which the United States is presented as
having a duty to lead while other countries, apparently, have an
obligation to follow. ''In the end,'' they write, ''the rest of the world
will probably both grimly acknowledge and grudgingly admit that, to
paraphrase the song, God has 'shed His grace on thee.' '' This is a point
of view with few adherents in the academy these days (let alone in other
nations), but it's surely one that enjoys warm support among many
red-state conservatives, and in the halls of the White House.
Critics of the Bush administration will find more to agree with in the
perspective of '' 'A Problem from Hell': America and the Age of
Genocide,'' Samantha Power's Pulitzer Prize-winning history of
20th-century mass murder. Unlike Schweikart and Allen, she does not see
virtue inhering, almost divinely, in American history. Instead, she judges
that history against a larger moral backdrop, asking how the country has
responded to the most dire of international crimes, genocide. The record
is hardly inspiring. Power reveals that throughout the 20th century,
whenever genocide occurred, whether the victims were Armenians, Jews,
Cambodians, Kurds or Tutsis, the American government stood by and did
nothing. Worse, in some instances, it sided with the murderers. '' 'A
Problem from Hell' '' exhorts Americans to learn from their history of
failure and dereliction, and to live up to their professed values; we have
''a duty to act.'' Whereas Schweikart and Allen believe American history
shows that the United States is already an idealistic agent in world
affairs, Power contends that our history shows it is not -- but that it
should become one.
A third book, Margaret MacMillan's ''Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed
the World,'' is in effect an answer to Schweikart, Allen and Power -- an
object lesson in the ways American idealism can go wrong. MacMillan's
focus is on Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I. A visionary, an
evangelist, an inspiration, an earth-shaker, a holy fool, Wilson went to
Paris in 1919 with grand ambitions: to hammer out a peace settlement and
confront a wretched world with virtue, to reconfigure international
relations and reform mankind itself. Freedom and democracy were ''American
principles,'' he proclaimed. ''And they are also the principles and
policies of forward-looking men and women everywhere, of every modern
nation, of every enlightened community. They are the principles of mankind
and they must prevail.'' Other leaders were less sure. David Lloyd George,
the British prime minister, liked Wilson's sincerity and
straightforwardness, but also found him obstinate and vain. France's prime
minister, the acerbic and unsentimental Georges Clemenceau, said that
talking to him was ''something like talking to Jesus Christ.'' (He didn't
mean that as a compliment.)
As a committed American democrat, Wilson affirmed his belief in the
principle of self-determination for all peoples, but in Paris his
convictions collided with reality. Eastern Europe was ''an ethnic
jumble,'' the Middle East a ''myriad of tribes,'' with peoples and
animosities so intermingled they could never be untangled into coherent
polities. In the Balkans, leaders were all for self-determination, except
when it applied to others. The conflicting parties couldn't even agree on
basic facts, making neutral mediation impossible. Ultimately, the
unbending Wilson compromised -- on Germany, China, Africa and the South
Pacific. He yielded to the force majeure of Turks and Italians. In the
end, he left behind him a volcano of dashed expectations and festering
resentments. MacMillan's book is a detailed and painful record of his
failure, and of how we continue to live with his troublesome legacy in the
Balkans, the Middle East and elsewhere.
Yet the idealists -- nationalists and internationalists alike -- do not
lack for responses. Wilsonianism, they might point out, has not been
discredited. It always arises from its own ashes; it has even become the
guiding philosophy of the present administration. Give George W. Bush key
passages from Wilson's speeches to read, and few would recognize that
almost a century had passed. Nor should this surprise us. For while the
skeptics can provide realism, they can't provide hope. As MacMillan says,
the Treaty of Versailles, particularly the League of Nations, was ''a bet
placed on the future.'' Who, looking back over the rubble, would have
wanted to bet on the past?
Little has changed in our new century. Without the dreams of the
idealists, all that is on offer is more of the same -- more hatred, more
bloodshed, more war, and eventually, now, nuclear war. Anti-Wilsonian
skeptics tend to be pessimistic about the wisdom of embarking on moral
crusades but, paradoxically, it is the idealists, the hopeful ones, who,
in fact, should be painting in Stygian black. They are the ones who should
be reminding us that for most of the world, history is not the benign
story of inexorable progress Americans like to believe in. Rather, it's a
record of unjustified suffering, irreparable loss, tragedy without
catharsis. It's a gorgon: stare at it too long and it turns you to stone.
Fifty years ago, Louis Hartz expressed the hope that the cold war would
bring an end to American provincialism, that international responsibility
would lead to ''a new level of consciousness.'' It hasn't happened. In the
1950's, two wide oceans and a nuclear stockpile allowed Americans to
continue living blithely in their imagined city on a hill, and the student
revolts of the 60's and 70's, if anything, fed the notion that the rest of
the world was ''out there.'' ''Bring the troops home'' was the protesters'
idea of a foreign policy.
But the disaster of 9/11 proved that the oceans do not protect us and that
our nuclear arsenal, no matter how imposing, will not save our cities from
terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. Today, there is no
retreating into the provincialism and innocence of the past. And because
withdrawal is not an option, the work of the globalizing American
historians possesses an urgency unknown to scholars of previous
generations. The major lesson the new historians must teach is that there
is no longer any safe haven from history's horror story. Looking forward
is unnerving, but looking backward is worse. The United States has no
choice. Like it or not, it is obliged to take a leading role in an
international arena that is unpredictable and dangerous, hopeful perhaps,
but also potentially catastrophic.
Barry Gewen is an editor at the Book Review.
Benjamin Franklin c/o Time Warp Mail Service Bob's Blog -
WhitakerOnline.org » 7/30/05 Insider Letter
Dear Mr. Franklin,
You are facing extremely serious legal problems.
1) Your invention of bifocal lens.
You have no qualifications whatsoever in the fields of optometry or
ophthalmology. You are ordered to cease and desist from the use or
discussion of this product.
Lawsuits have been lodged against you by people whose bifocals have broken
and gashed their skins. Others say that they confuse the eyes and cause
2) Your invention of the stove
Your Franklin Stove has caused serious injury to a very large number of
people. Children playing have bumped into it and been burned by it. You
have no Federally-approve set of directions for its use, so you are
personally responsible for every accident that occurs in using your
3) Your discovery of the Gulf Stream
As with optometry in the case of your invention of bifocals, you are
practicing meteorology with no degree or other qualifications in the
While no one has yet been able to formulate an actual lawsuit against you
on this subject, you have made a laughing-stock of yourself by going
outside the field of printing, where you do have some actual credentials.
You are in deep trouble in other areas.
Your comments about Quakers, Indians and other minority groups were
definitely Hate Speech.
You are charged with manslaughter and armed robbery in aiding and abetting
in the robbery of America from the Native Americans.
Other charges are pending.
The Association of Experts, Lawyers, Professors and Other Authorities in
the Year 2005
Knowing a Man (Ben Franklin), but Not Melons
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/19/arts/design/19fran.html [Click the URL
to view the graphic.]
Exhibitions Review By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
PHILADELPHIA, Dec. 14 -There was something insufferable about Benjamin
Franklin, and many of his contemporaries knew it. John Adams wrote, "Had
he been an ordinary man, I should never have taken the trouble to expose
the turpitude of his intrigues, or to vindicate my reputation against his
vilifications and calumnies."
"Dr. Franklin's Profile," by Red Grooms, is on view in Philadelphia.
"Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World" is at the National
Constitution Center in Philadelphia through April 30 and then travels to
St. Louis, Houston, Denver, Atlanta and finally, in December 2007, to
Paris. "Benjamin Franklin: In His Own Words" is at the Southwest Gallery
of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington
through June 17.
Franklin could change positions when they seemed unpopular, compromise on
principles and turn statecraft into a matter of personality. When he
achieved any post of power, he stuffed relatives into remunerative
positions while proclaiming that public servants should expect no payment
In other contexts, Franklin's treatment of family could have made Poor
Richard blush through his almanack: He began a three-generation tradition
of siring illegitimate children; he made sure to spend 15 of the last 17
years of his marriage away from his wife in foreign lands, making no
effort to see her in her final years; to his children and heirs he was
capable of stunning callousness mixed with bouts of devotion.
Nor was his later reputation sterling among literary figures. Melville
referred to Franklin's "primeval orientalness." Mark Twain, only partly in
jest, accused him of "animosity toward boys" with his pert maxims about
propriety. D. H. Lawrence, who could have been Franklin in a fun-house
mirror, called him a "dry, moral, utilitarian little democrat."
No, Franklin, the middle-class materialist and moralist, has not had an
easy time of it, particularly during much of the 20th century when he was
often considered annoyingly bourgeois. It is even difficult to clearly
define his contribution to the founding of the United States. Unlike
Jefferson, he was not a devotee of high principle and a practitioner of
high prose. Unlike Washington, he could not have led an army through
adversity or channeled a fledgling country through birth pangs. Unlike
Madison or even Hamilton, he was no theoretician.
But none of this really matters compared with what Franklin did achieve.
Nor can it dampen the celebratory impact of an exciting new exhibition
about Franklin's life and achievements at the National Constitution Center
in Philadelphia, or slight the imposing sobriety of the 10 display cases
stocked with Franklin documents at the Library of Congress in Washington.
On Jan. 17, the 300th anniversary of Franklin's birth will be celebrated,
notably in Philadelphia, which he was instrumental in establishing as a
modern city by helping to found its major institutions: America's first
nonsectarian college (ancestor to the University of Pennsylvania), its
first public hospital, its first subscription library and its first
property-insurance company. He will also be celebrated for his exploration
of electricity (saving cities with his invention of the lightning rod);
for slyly courting the French during the Revolutionary War (yielding a
treaty that helped turn the tide against the British); and for spurring a
stalled Constitutional Convention toward compromise and a bicameral
In fact, the difficulty we find in placing Franklin or in defining him is
inseparable from the complexity of his achievements. In the last five
years he has been the subject of at least four biographies - a gracefully
intelligent survey by Walter Isaacson, a forceful and meticulous
re-creation of his French years by Stacy Schiff, major scholarly books by
H. W. Brands and Edmund S. Morgan. Franklin emerges in these
reconstructions as a founder of not only American institutions but of an
idea of America itself.
Like Whitman, he contained multitudes. And in his refusal to devote
himself to a single dominating theory, in his skepticism about sweeping
universals, in his devotion to compromise, in his forthright embrace of
material prosperity, in his belief in community organization, and in his
distinctive mixture of cynicism and idealism about humanity, he shaped a
pragmatic temperament that can still be associated with the country he
If Franklin were to mount a museum exhibition about himself, it might very
well resemble - in its variety, intelligence and pleasures - "Benjamin
Franklin: In Search of a Better World"; the curator of this Philadelphia
show is Page Talbott, a specialist in decorative and fine arts. It
contains more than 250 artifacts, ranging from one of Jefferson's drafts
of the Declaration of Independence (his originally held truths to be
"sacred and undeniable"; Franklin transformed them into truths held to be
"self-evident") to Franklin's fossilized mastodon tooth (found near the
ruins of his Market Street home) to important paintings portraying the
Almost no aspect of Franklin's enterprise is left untouched: printer (the
only surviving copy of Franklin's first Poor Richard's Almanack from
1733), civic leader (a suggestion box from the subscription library),
scientist (a modern version of his electrical apparatus, producing sparks
by turning a handle), diplomat (including a life-size diorama of Franklin
facing British parliamentary accusations of fomenting American rebellion),
inventor (of bifocals, for instance, or the glass armonica, in which
spinning bowls dampened by water created ethereal sounds that inspired
compositions by Mozart and Beethoven). And scattered throughout the
exhibition are usable replicas of an armchair Franklin invented; slight
pressure on a foot pedal waves a fan above one's head.
In creating such a show, Franklin might have also done as this one does,
and elide the shadows of his life and temperament, leaving behind only
slight hints. "Did Franklin himself listen to Poor Richard's advice?" the
exhibition asks about Franklin's proverbs. "Sometimes. Sometimes not."
There is also a tendency here at times to seek a kind of sensation that
Franklin would have looked askance at, simply because it adds so little to
understanding. One example is a giant model of a tree veined with colored
fibers meant to symbolize Franklin's Junto Society, made up of 12 citizens
who met weekly for debate and civic planning. Press a button next to each
member's name and the tree's fibers light up, leading to hanging signs
displaying the Philadelphia institutions that that member helped
But one walks through the 8,000 square feet of this exhibition astonished
at the fecundity of Franklin's imagination and the range of his
inventions. Something is reproduced, too, of his practical and playful
spirit. Visitors will be challenged to flip numbers on a giant magic
square to make all rows add to 15 - the kind of puzzle that Franklin
turned into a specialty. And just as Franklin was remarkably attentive to
younger children (though he tended to become almost cavalier about their
needs as they aged), the displays aimed at the younger set are whimsical
without a hint of condescension. ("Men and melons" is the first half of a
maxim displayed in a participatory exhibit about Poor Richard; visitors
try to match the second half: "stink in three days," "are hard to know" or
"should not go barefoot."
Missing in this chronological survey, though, is the kind of complication
that accompanies darker shadows. We learn, for example, that Franklin's
initial support of the British Stamp Act in 1765 led to serious problems
with his American reputation, and we learn too that he hoped for some sort
of reconciliation with the British Empire when many of his compatriots had
already committed to independence.
But it is at the Library of Congress that visitors can see one of the bald
propaganda exercises Franklin used to rescue his reputation when he
returned to Philadelphia from England in 1775: a furious letter to a
British friend ("You are now my enemy") that he never sent, but just
showed around town. (The Washington exhibition also shows the handwritten
"personal liturgy" that Franklin wrote for himself at the age of 22 as a
substitute for attending church.
There could be more explanation in the Philadelphia show, too, of what was
at stake when Franklin spent eight years in France as a representative of
the Continental Congress, and of how difficult his task was - persuading
the Continent's most tradition-bound court that this creditless assemblage
of colonies should be taken seriously, while also persuading
representatives of the colonies that the court in Paris could not simply
be arm-wrestled into a treaty. Franklin used a chess metaphor, echoed in
the Philadelphia exhibition, to explain his actions, but we don't really
learn enough of the moves to understand.
Toward the end, this extraordinary exhibition almost peters out into
generalities and gimmicky display. A real exploration of Franklin's impact
would have meant showing just how controversial a character he had become,
partly because of his long tenure in France; even the newly formed United
States Senate (as one of its number reported) refused to wear "crape on
their arms for a Month" as the House did after Franklin's death in 1790.
"Upon the whole," Franklin wrote in 1771, "I am much disposed to like the
World as I find it, and to doubt my own Judgment as to what would mend
it." That made him a pragmatist and a compromiser, a nonutopian, a man
with bifocals. But what could he hope for? "The greatest Political
Structure Human Wisdom ever yet erected." That made him a visionary. He is
celebrated for being both.
More information about the paleopsych